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Do Birds Use Ants as Tools?

More than 250 species of birds have been seen “anting”

The purpose of anting remains something of a mystery, although most experts agree it has to do with transferring the ants’ secretions to the bird’s body. It’s likely that the ants’ formic acid helps the bird control feather-mites and other parasites.

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Transcript: 

BirdNote®

Anting: An Avian Spa Treatment?

Written by Bob Sundstrom

This is BirdNote.

[American Robin song]

It’s a warm, sunny day, and we’re watching an American Robin, sitting on the ground, its wings outstretched and its tail splayed out behind it. If you look more closely, you might see something a bit shocking.

The robin is sitting on top of an anthill, and ants are swarming all over its body! You might even see the robin take an ant in its bill and wipe it underneath its wings.

So, what’s happening? Well, it’s kind of like an avian spa treatment. [American Robin song]

Ornithologists call it “anting.”

Although you might not see it too often, more than 250 species of birds have been recorded doing it. The purpose of anting remains something of a mystery, although most experts agree it has to do with transferring the ants’ secretions to the bird’s body. It’s likely that the ants’ formic acid helps the bird control feather-mites and other parasites.

Some birds have been seen using citrus fruits, mothballs, and even glowing embers to achieve the same effects. One clever bird, a rook — the British cousin of the American Crow — even learned to strike a match, then touch the hot tip under its wing! *

Talk about a hot spa treatment.

[rook sound]

For BirdNote, I’m Michael Stein.

###

Producer: John Kessler

Managing Producer: Jason Saul

Editor: Ashley Ahearn

Associate Producer: Ellen Blackstone

Assistant Producer: Mark Bramhill

Narrator: 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.

BirdNote’s theme composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.

© 2019 Tune In to Nature.org     June 2012 / July 2019    Narrator: Michael Stein

ID#063006AMROKPLU    anting-01c

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

“Audubon's Original Notes on the Habits of the Wild Turkey Written for Charles Lucien Bonaparte” by A. W. Schorger. The Auk Vol. 79, No. 3 (Jul., 1962), pp. 444-452 (9 pages). DOI: 10.2307/4082826 https://www.jstor.org/stable/4082826

Morozov, Nicholai. (2015). Why do birds practice anting?. Biology Bulletin Reviews. 5. 353-365. 10.1134/S2079086415040076. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/282623092_Why_do_birds_practice...

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