Bob Henke commentary: Bumbling into the subject of anting
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Bob Henke commentary: Bumbling into the subject of anting

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I felt like pie yesterday but found I did not have enough of any one sort of filling. This does not bother me. I simply mix various fruits together until the pie is stuffed. This sort of pie-filling even has a name: “Bumble pie.”

We have a different term. Whenever I make one, I am reminded of Granddaughter One’s first encounter with eclectic pie-making. She looked a bit askance at the bumble pie, asking what was in it. I could have said blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, apples and a generous portion of elderberries. I could have said that — but instead I said, “ants.”

No, it’s not ants! How would you get that many ants?

You just go anting.

There’s no such thing as anting.

Sure there is. We go hunting for the meat, picking for the berries, gardening for the vegetables and anting for the ants.

She allowed as how I was being ridiculous, after all, a 5-year-old knows most everything there is to know, but she did scrupulously avoid the bumble pie, even when offered with whipped cream. The pumpkin was safer — you could see there were no insects.

Actually, while there were no bugs in the bumble pie, she was wrong on one count. There is such a thing as anting. It is a practice of importance to a number of species of birds. Interestingly, most of the species with the anting habit are the same ones that engage in the somewhat more dangerous practice of fire washing.

Although anting behavior is common to more than 250 avian species, biologists did not recognize it until the mid-1900s. Actually, this is not a completely accurate statement for John James Audubon, in 1921, wrote of wild turkeys dusting in abandoned anthills, but he thought it was simply for the dust. Actually, the goal is the ants, not the dust.

Most of us are familiar with the large amount of preening done by birds. Anting is an extension of this behavior, which involves the use of live ants. There are two types. The first is active anting, in which the bird places live ants in its plumage. The second is passive anting, which involves finding an ant nest and laying down on top of it such that the ants climb into the plumage on their own. The latter behavior has not been as thoroughly studied as active anting.

At casual glance, active anting looks very similar to normal feather preening. However, close observation will show the bird has an ant in its bill and is stroking the feathers with the ant, not its beak. Some anters, like starlings, will stand on an anthill, poke as many as 50 ants into their plumage, particularly under the wings, then fly off to a safe perch and proceed with their anting, using up every single ant carried with them.

The reason for this has not been absolutely proven, but most ornithologists feel it has two functions. The first is pest control. Many species of ants protect themselves with formic acid when handled pinched. Some actually spray acid when handled roughly. Formic acid is a powerful miticide, in fact, bee keepers are using formic acid in their hives to combat the deadly mites that infect honeybees.

Anting birds seem to pick the ant species with the highest formic acid output and continue scrubbing them on the feathers until the ant’s supply of acid is exhausted. About half the bird species that practice anting, consume the ant when its bitter tasting acid is all wiped off on the feathers.

This led some researchers to suggest the practice was simply food-gathering behavior. However, wiping them on vegetation or the ground would have the same effect. The other half of the anting species simply drop the ants on the ground when the grooming is done. The true answer is probably a blend of the two.

In any case, anting seems to be a rather ecstatic experience for birds, especially the other type — passive anting. Since this technique involves a little pain, it must be worth the reward. Passive anting involves laying on an anthill, letting the ants crawl through the feathers, then shaking and flapping against the ground until the ants bite, releasing their formic acid at the same time. The bird then picks each individual ant off. Some species eat the ants, others simply drop them on the ground.

The species in the Northeast that have been observed anting include ruffed grouse, wild turkey (and domestics), great horned owl, flicker, cedar waxwing, mockingbird, catbird, veery, wood thrush, robin, golden-crowned kinglet, junco, song sparrow, cardinal, rose-breasted grosbeak, oriole, red-winged blackbird, house sparrow, crow, raven and starling.

The pest control hypothesis seems to be gaining the upper hand primarily because some anting species, particularly ravens and starlings, have also been observed to make some interesting substitutions. Instead of ants, other materials with mite-killing properties are used in the same anting manner including apple, orange and lemon peels, mothballs, pieces of rubber tires and burning cigarette butts.

Starlings have even been observed taking it to a whole different level. These birds approach open fires and smoking chimneys to “wash” their feathers in the smoke. The behavior of the birds immediately following both smoke washing and anting with other materials is very similar to their reaction to anting with ants, suggesting a similar purpose. Starlings have been known to set buildings on fire by bringing live cigarette butts back to their nests.

However, all this speculation has made me hungry again. Now it is time for some ant pie. ...

Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.

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