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Anting: Avian Spa Treatment?

What IS that bird doing?

On a warm, sunny day, an American Robin flops on the ground, wings outstretched and tail splayed behind. The robin sits astride an anthill, and the ants are swarming over its body! This is called "anting," and probably has to do with transferring the ants' formic acid to the bird's body. This American Robin (temporarily in a wildlife rehabilitation center, while it grows some new feathers) obviously enjoys it. Be sure to watch the video (below) of a American Robin anting.

Full Transcript

Anting: An Avian Spa Treatment?

Written by Bob Sundstrom

This is BirdNote!
[American Robin song]
On a warm, sunny day, an American Robin sits on the ground, its wings outstretched and its tail splayed behind. You look more closely and see that the robin is sitting astride an anthill, and that ants are swarming over its body! Occasionally the robin even takes an ant in its bill, and wipes the ant against the underside of its wings -- a kind of avian spa treatment. [American Robin song]
This behavior, first recorded by John James Audubon in the 1830s, is known as “anting.” Although observed infrequently, anting has been recorded among more than 250 species of birds. The purpose of anting remains something of a mystery, although most experts agree it has to do with transferring the ants’ secretions — particularly formic acid — to the bird’s body. It’s likely that the ants’ formic acid helps control feather-mites and other parasites.
Lacking ants, some birds have been seen using citrus fruits, mothballs, and even glowing embers to achieve the effects of formic acid. One clever bird, a rook — the British cousin of the American Crow — even learned to strike a match, then touch the hot tip to its under-wing! *
[American Robin]
BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler. Our executive producer is Chris Peterson. For BirdNote, I’m Michael Stein.

Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.  Recorded by G. A. Keller. Ambient recorded by C. Peterson.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Chris Peterson
© 2012 Tune In to     June 2012     Narrator: Michael Stein
ID#063006AMROKPLU    anting-01b

* Reference noted: Dennis, John V. Beyond the Bird Feeder. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. 1981:83

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