Anting: An Ancient and Mysterious Bird Ritual

Male Robin hunting for food, possibly ants!
Male Robin hunting for food, possibly ants! | Source

What do robins, marigolds, cigarette butts and ants have in common?

Add to this list: lemons, limes and mothballs. Any ideas?

Lemons, limes and marigolds grow in a garden, and are all natural; but then what about the cigarette butts, mothballs and ants. Any guesses yet?

I won’t keep you wondering any longer. All of these seemingly disjointed objects are used in a mysterious ritual known as “anting”. What in the world is “anting”, you ask?

Wild Birds Are Very Clever

You know, for as long as I can remember, when referring to people who are less than average in intelligence, the phrases ‘bird brain’ and ‘feather head’ are routinely employed. The birds and I take exception to this! In fact, birds often demonstrate their aptitude for performing tasks, playing with found objects, and using tools.

The crop of an ant is located near the poison glands.  It requires a delicate touch for the bird not to damage the nutritious crop while anting.
The crop of an ant is located near the poison glands. It requires a delicate touch for the bird not to damage the nutritious crop while anting. | Source

Wild Birds Use Tools!

Anting demonstrates just such a use of ‘tools’. Birds use live ants to ‘squirt’ formic acid onto their feathers. There are a couple of theories as to the real purpose of “anting”, which is used by over 200 species of birds.

Some believe it is a form of prey preparation. Birds somehow realize that before consuming them, it is best to empty the poison sac the ants carry in their abdomen. By squeezing the ant in just the right place, birds avoid damaging the nutrient-rich ‘crop’, and a possible painful attack from the business end of the ant’s pincers. When the ant feels the ‘pinch’, its defense system goes into ‘red alert status’, and out from its poison sac comes formic acid. After combing its feathers, the bird can then safely enjoy a tasty ant hors d’oevre!

Remora cleaning Nurse Shark
Remora cleaning Nurse Shark | Source

Why Would a Bird Deliberately Stand on an Anthill?

Lots of bird species have been observed as they deliberately stand on, or open their wings across, an ant hill. They are then ‘cleaned’ by the ants as they find all sorts of parasites.

This is similar to the behavior of fish in the ocean. They rely on the remora, also known as ‘the cleaner fish’ to investigate and clear hitchhikers from every inch of their body and fins, including inside their mouths! Think about it: What else could a fastidious creature do when it has no arms?

The accompanying interesting and entertaining short video from bbart007 depicts a robin deliberately standing on an ant hill. Watch as the robin uses the ants to unburden itself of annoying insect infestations.

Entertaining Video from bbart007

Garden millipede
Garden millipede | Source

Birds Use Other Means of Natural Insecticide

Ants aren’t alone when it comes to the ability to emit insect repellents. If you have ever noticed a pungent and thoroughly repugnant odor while working in your garden, the culprit may well have been a millipede. Emitting foul-tasting chemicals from their ozopores, millipedes are another often-used weapon employed by our feathered friends to help in their fight against pestering bugs.

Video of Bombardier Beetle in Action, from clipcutter

Bombs Away!

Ever heard of a bombardier beetle? They are accurately named! Should a predator dare to harass this amazing bug, it is met with a cloud of hot, toxic chemicals that burn. What’s more, the beetle can actually aim at its target! The beetle uses an enzyme very effectively, by releasing it at the same time as the toxic cloud is ejected. It is equivalent to the caustic reaction you would get if you heated a tiny amount of bleach! Larger animals are not affected, but birds using the beetles to ‘comb’ their feathers gain an awesome layer of repellent.

In this brief video, TheClipcutter has cleverly captured the amazing ‘toxic cloud jetting’ behavior of the nocturnal Bombardier Beetle as ants venture too close for the beetle’s comfort. The videographer uses both real time and slow motion so you can easily see the process.

Mothballs have been used by birds to coat their feathers against insects!
Mothballs have been used by birds to coat their feathers against insects! | Source

Napthalene found in mothballs is efficient at keeping more than moths at bay; and tobacco extracts have long been part of homemade insect-fighting liquids.

How the birds know that cigarette butts hold toxic usefulness, and mothballs will repel tiny critters is beyond me! It seems there is much more to be learned about these flying wonders than we ever could have imagined.

Marigolds contain pyrethrum, a natural insect repellent.
Marigolds contain pyrethrum, a natural insect repellent. | Source

Pyrethrum Warning from Dirt Doctor

A warning about pyrethrum and its toxicity when combined with PBO* from the Dirt Doctor. Learn more by clicking this link: http://www.dirtdoctor.com/Dangers-of-Pyrethrum_vq2490.htm

*PBO is an ionic compound known as lead monoxide.

More 'Anting' Tools Used By Birds

As to lemons and limes, their rinds have been designed as a protective barrier between the fruit and those insects that would otherwise make short work of it. Bitter chemicals in their skins are so efficient at repelling bugs that they too have been engaged by our clever aviators.

That grand old annual garden standby, the marigold, was and still is commonly planted around the perimeter of a vegetable plot. The purpose, of course, is to deter garden pests from moving past the sentries guarding the precious produce of the interior.

A natural bug killer, pyrethrum found in marigolds and chrysanthemums, does a number on the mite infestations living in birds’ feathers. Do please let me know if you ever witness a bird using marigolds as feather combs. I would be very interested in seeing that as well!

One of my clever and beautiful Blue Jays.  These colorful birds are noted for using ants as insect repellents, and for eating them!
One of my clever and beautiful Blue Jays. These colorful birds are noted for using ants as insect repellents, and for eating them! | Source

Study by two scientists pointing to the food prep theory:

According to Bird Watching Magazine, October 2013, two researchers at Cornell University wondered what would happen if they presented birds with ants that still had their formic acid sacs intact, as well as those with their poison sacs removed. To make sure the birds had never seen ‘anting’ behavior before, the scientists chose several hand-raised Blue Jays as ‘guinea pigs’.

Their findings seem to support the food preparation theory, because almost all of the ants without poison sacs were immediately eaten. When ants that still had their defensive sacs full of formic acid were given to the Blue Jays, the majority were used for ‘anting’. The birds were somehow aware that the poison sacs were in need of emptying before consuming the tiny critters.

My Opinion:

I believe anting to be an ingenious way birds rid themselves of feather mites, lice and other irritating parasitic critters. Since some have witnessed birds using cigarette butts and mothballs in anting behavior, my totally unscientific ‘gut instinct’ rules in favor of the insecticide theory. The debate rages on as to the actual reason. It is quite possible that one behavior naturally evolved from the other. Until we find an effective way to ‘talk’ to the birds, we will never know for sure.

What's Your Opinion?

Why do birds use ‘anting’? Which theory do you think is correct?

See results without voting

The more I observe and learn about birds, the more awestruck I am. Their unique abilities for coping with their changing environment, and their opportunistic approach to the world continue to be a source of amazement. It's no wonder there are so many bird watchers! I count myself very lucky to be able to appreciate their contributions to and their relationship with our natural macrocosm.

Grandma Pearl a/k/a Connie Smith
Grandma Pearl a/k/a Connie Smith | Source

'You can create yard and garden habitats that Help Birds Survive and Thrive'


Read more by visiting grandmapearl.hubpages.com; and


Join me at GrandmaPearlsBackporch to discover more about wildlife in general, and birds in particular.

More by this Author


Have You Ever Seen Birds Use 'Insecticide'? 38 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

Brilliant introduction. I had to read the next paragraph to find out the answer to your seemingly disjointed question...and by that time I was hooked on the entire article. So very well written my friend.

I hope you are well and happy.

bill


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Billy, thank you! This kind of comment from my mentor makes me a happy, happy girl! So that takes care of the hope for my happiness. As to the wellness, I am just getting over a bout with a nasty upper respiratory thing that knocked me out of commission for a while. I'm happy to say I am on the mend and feeling much better.

Thank you for being my cheerleader, my friend ;) Pearl


hawaiianodysseus profile image

hawaiianodysseus 3 years ago from Southeast Washington state

Thanks, Pearl, for a most interesting and informative article. How very much we take our little friends for granted. I, too, am never one to minimize the intelligence of animals. Thanks for sharing!

Aloha!

~Joe


Scribenet profile image

Scribenet 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

I have never observed this even though I see many robins. I think I may have to watch them a little more. I have marigolds so it would be a riot to see one combing itself with a marigold! Priceless!


carol7777 profile image

carol7777 3 years ago from Arizona

You do know your birds. This is very interesting...and obviously something I didn't know. As always you provide interesting information and well written and of course your lovely photos..


bravewarrior profile image

bravewarrior 3 years ago from Central Florida

Pearl, I was not aware of 'anting' before reading this. I gain an education with each article you post. I was aware of marigolds' role in preventing bugs from invading veggie crops, but I was not aware of citrus rinds serving the same purpose. Would it be beneficial to scatter citrus rinds in plant beds?

I wonder if pigeons de-bug themselves. I know in cities, they are known for carrying lice. Maybe there aren't enough ants in the concrete jungle! :-)


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

So nice to see you Joe! I know you are aware of the natural connections we all share; you appreciate each and every creature on this Earth. It is a sad fact that too often humans get caught up in their own daily trials and tribulations. There is much hope, though, as long as those of us who love the animals continue to give them a voice in this all-too noisy world. I am pleased you stopped by, my friend ;) Pearl


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Scribenet, wouldn't it, though! There is a large ant hill out back where we have extra garden soil stockpiled. I have vowed to watch my robins much more closely, particularly around that area. It would be a lot of fun to watch this process unfold! Thanks for the visit today ;) Pearl


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Hi Carol! I'm very pleased you found this article interesting. Your comments are always kind and supportive. I would imagine living in the desert that you may someday catch sight of this crazy but useful behavior. At first it seems as though the bird is being attacked, but instead it actually is enjoying the process! Personally, I'm glad I have arms so I don't have to rely on this technique to satisfy an itch!

Have a glorious day, my friend ;) Pearl


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

bravewarrior, I know that fire ants in particular do not like citrus oils, so scattering lemon rinds might work as well as the marigolds! Its worth trying to see what happens. And I think you are exactly right about the pigeons in the cities. It would be very hard to find a good ant hill amid all that blacktop and concrete. It's very possible that's the reason pigeons are so infested. You are one smart cookie, my friend!

I hope you have a productive and happy day ;) Pearl


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

I know I am repeating myself here but again you have a gem. I learn so much for you and another to vote up and share Pearl and enjoy your day. Lots of love to you my dear friend.

Eddy.


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Dear Eddy, your heartfelt comments always brighten my day! I look forward to your visits--you are a treasure! I very much appreciate the share and votes, and you my dear friend ;) Pearl


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

Great work, Connie. This was so informative with the videos and explanations. Awesome and up.


The Examiner-1 profile image

The Examiner-1 3 years ago

I just wrote about this in one of my Hubs but I did not know about the eating, only the cleaning of small pests. I found yours to be very interesting. Perhaps the birds are observant and have seen that ants stay away from - or are affected by - cigarette butts and the flowers mentioned.


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Thanks Deb, It's amazing how underrated birds actually are! You know exactly what I mean, I'm sure. For most people they are just around, noticed every now and then. But what awesome creatures they really are! I hope you have an awesome weekend filled with beautiful bird image opportunities ;) Connie


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

The Examiner-1: You know, I wish someone would figure out a way to converse with our bird friends so we could get at the real answers to all these questions! I would love to know just how their brains work. I know that birds do pay attention to everything in their environment. And it's quite possible that you have hit on the reason they use cigarette butts and marigolds, lemon rinds, etc. Good thinking;) Pearl


The Examiner-1 profile image

The Examiner-1 3 years ago

Thank you. I have been bird watching for about 30 years and patiently observed the birds also patiently observing things around them. :-) I just love birds.


The Examiner-1 profile image

The Examiner-1 3 years ago

It was no problem Pearl, it just took a little observing on my end. Kevin


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

The Examiner-1 : Me too!

;) Pearl


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

The Examiner-1 : It takes a very special and dedicated person to make observations of the wild things around us. The more I watch birds and their behaviors, the more I love them. So I know exactly where you're coming from!

;) Pearl


The Examiner-1 profile image

The Examiner-1 3 years ago

grandmapearl

That is why I started writing Hubs on birds when I signed on to HP. I love birds! I have been watching them practically all of my life. I almost take my attention off of other things to watch them (do not worry, I do not even drive). I used to spend hours watching them at my feeders. One time - when I had started - I was watching the feeders and in my peripheral view I saw something. When I turned my head it was a Red-tailed Hawk that had landed on my garage roof!

Kevin :-)


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Kevin, we certainly share a lot--I do the same thing when I see a bird or birds! My attention is fixed on their behavior and beauty, songs and calls. They are fascinating to watch--and Wow! To have seen a Red-tailed Hawk land on your garage roof must have been really exciting.

Soon after we moved up here in the woods, I was amazed to see a hawk fly over with a snake in its talons! I'll never forget that sight ;) Pearl


The Examiner-1 profile image

The Examiner-1 3 years ago

Pearl

I live down in the SE and I see hawks and vultures soaring/circling high, and low, (even on the road) most of the time. In NJ when I saw that Red-tailed Hawk it was the only one which I saw.

Kevin


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Kevin, we have a lot of hawks here from spring through summertime. Most have started their migration already.

Pearl


The Examiner-1 profile image

The Examiner-1 3 years ago

I have not logged how long they stay for I just noticed them soaring/flying high above a lot. I do not know when they migrate, if they do. The ones by you may migrate down to here in the SE. :-D


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Kevin, I think you're right about that. I imagine they are looking for easy prey and warmer weather! Although, the last few days have been very pleasant here ;) Pearl


The Examiner-1 profile image

The Examiner-1 3 years ago

Yes, Pearl, the temperature has also been getting warmer here for the past few days through the past week. This was after most of the 2nd half of August when I used my electric heater at night when I slept. This has been a warm fall!

I have been hearing (and seeing) more small birds again.


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

The Examiner-1, My newest batch of gold finches has been very active the last couple of weeks. We also had a cold snap that I thought had signaled the end of summer. Thankfully, I was wrong!

Have a wonderful weekend ;) Pearl


The Examiner-1 profile image

The Examiner-1 3 years ago

You too Pearl. We are supposed to get rain, or maybe thunderstorms :-( down here on Sunday.

Kevin


pstraubie48 profile image

pstraubie48 3 years ago from sunny Florida

Hi Connie

You know I watch birds on a pretty regular basis and have seen the little 'dance' they do that you show in the video. Pretty amazing.

I wish they would dance around over the many anthills in my yard. The ants think it is still summer and that they need to be out busily being ants. We have quite a few neighborhood kitties so the birds don't get down on the round too much in my yard.

They are singing right now like it is spring because of our warm fall.

Thanks for sharing this , Connie. I learned so much as usual when I come to your page.

Angels are on the way ps


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

pstraubie, it's always a pleasure to have you stop by for a visit! So you have actually witnessed 'anting' behavior! How cool is that! I'm sorry you still have so many active ants, though. But if it continues to stay warm, it's quite possible the birds will find those ant hills and stop by for a little cleaning before they continue to head south.

It has been a crazy fall here as well. Last week it was quite windy, but very warm and rainy. Last night it turned cold, and this morning we are at 40 degrees!

Thanks as always for the many Angels you have sent my way; they mean so much to me, as do you, my friend;) Pearl


The Examiner-1 profile image

The Examiner-1 3 years ago

Gee, I thought it was chilly here Pearl, but not 40 degrees! I knew that it was not like last year but I woke this morning and the radio said that it was 68 degrees out. Once it gets cold/cool for several nights it is chillier inside this house than outside because this house holds it in!!

Kevin


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Kevin, Same here, this house maintains the cold. During the transition months of spring and fall, it is usually considerably cooler inside than out! So I know exactly what you mean. I often have to start the wood stove just to remove the chill. Our high today is predicted as 68 degrees!

;) Pearl


The Examiner-1 profile image

The Examiner-1 3 years ago

I try to keep my bills as low as possible so I use heat as little as I can. I lower the thermostat - below the recommended - using an electric heater nights in my bedroom and dressing warm days. It has been cooler the last few nights and leaks in my bedroom window. It was 54 degrees low the other night. Our highs are still in the mid 70's to mid 80's but I am more worried about the nights. If only it would stay 64+ at night I could take it.


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

I dress in layers, so as the day warms I can shed a layer or two. It's always about 8 to 10 degrees cooler where I live in the woods than it is in the village. But in the summertime, that's a very good thing!


The Examiner-1 profile image

The Examiner-1 3 years ago

I do that too Pearl, say a sweatshirt or a sweater. I use electric heaters only in whatever room I am in as I use the room. When the temperature goes down to a certain point then I put on the house heat maybe from 4 AM through 6 or 7 AM. Maybe its for only 3 or 4 months.


CamyalodayVot 3 years ago

You actually have a remarkably informative website. You've any more personal blogs or internet sites I may perhaps check out? I love the read.

itedgeveimilk


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 3 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

CamyalodayVot, Thanks for the supportive comments; they are very much appreciated. My blog can be found at: pearlsbackporch.blogspot.com and deals with wildlife in general and birds in particular.

I'm glad you stopped by ;) Pearl

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