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Perhaps some of the strangest behaviour indulged in by birds is anting. Anting occurs in two different forms and for the sake of this essay it does not always involve ants.

Most anting, however, does involve ants and over 250 different species of birds have been recorded displaying this behaviour at one time or another. Anting occurs either as active anting, in which the bird picks an ant up and applies it to its plumage, or passive anting. Normally, the ant during active anting will be stroked along the feathers, usually the flight feathers. Starlings (Sternus vulgaris) actively seek out Formicine ants which suggests that the ants' ability to spray formic acid is an important consideration. It has been observed by many people that during anting the birds appear to get exceedingly excited. After the ant has been applied to the feathers it is either discarded or eaten. Other active anting birds are Babblers, Tanagers and Weavers.

Passive anting involves the bird finding an ants' nest and lying down among the ants. This process often likened to bathing in ants is not as well studied as active anting. Birds which are passive anters include the European Jay, Crows and Waxbills.

Because life loves diversity, Blackbirds, Redwings and other thrushes exercise a flexible strategy, being either passive or active anters as the occasion or some unknown need takes them. Strangest of all perhaps is the Grey Thrush of Japan which is a passive anter which goes throughout the actions of an active anter, but without any ants in its bill.

Finally, birds have also been observed to indulge in anting behaviour using objects that are not ants such as mothballs and apple peel.

What actually happens during anting is easy to observe and record, especially as many birds will display anting activity in captivity if offered ants. A more difficult question to answer is why. In truth nobody seems really sure what birds get out of anting. People have theorised that the ants help rid the birds of pests like feather mites and louse flies, other theories suggest that the anting is just a way of getting the ant to discharge its store of formic acid before eating it. The trouble with this idea is that it doesn't explain passive anting. Scientific evidence supporting the pest control theory is hard to find. However, it is known that ants are only eaten after they have discharged all of their acid. It is not unreasonable to assume that active anting as we see it today evolved from a detoxifying action to make ants edible but gave the added benefit of pest control to some extent. Nature often likes to perform several roles with one action and though scientists like to understand the order of importance and/or the order of origination of an action this is not always easy to achieve.

Perhaps related to anting, but even more bizarre is 'smoke bathing'. Birds such as Rooks have been observed standing on smoking chimneys with their wings spread open in a similar posture to some birds when anting. Birds have also been seen to use smoking cigarette butts for anting. On other occasions both houses and trees have been set alight by birds taking live cigarettes back to their nests. No-one really knows why.

The information on this page was contributed by EarthLife.

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Last updated: 24 November 2002