If you were to see a bird flattened to the ground and covered in ants, you might worry it had fallen ill and was in the process of being devoured alive. A remarkable photo captured by photographer Tony Austin certainly seems to depict such a scene – but getting swarmed by ants is actually the bird’s intention. The behavior is known as “anting” and is one that, whilst rarely photographed so succinctly, is known to be practiced by several bird species.
“Saw a murder of crows, one was acting strangely, it appeared [that] he was taking a very odd and violent dirt bath,” wrote Austin in the Picture perfect Vancouver Island Facebook group where they first shared the photo. “Only on getting home and editing did I see his dilemma! Don't be sad, Enlarge the photo and read the comments.”
Concerned group members were pleased to discover that the bird’s demise was actually more of an innovative spa treatment, with the ants merely doing the bird’s bidding rather than consuming it alive. Anting can be done in one of two ways: active or passive. Active anting sees birds such as jays plucking ants and placing them among their feathers, while passive anting can be achieved by simply smushing yourself on top of an anthill and letting them climb on board.
While anting is mostly seen in songbirds, the second half of this bird-insect tango are thought to be derived from two subfamilies of ants, neither of which sting (makes sense). What they lack in defense they make up for in repugnancy, however, excreting off-putting acid and oil (from their abdomen and anal glands, respectively) as a means of repelling attackers.
How this stanky muck benefits the anting birds remains something of a mystery, but it’s suspected to play a role in feather maintenance or simply be comfortable. It’s possible birds get anting then they’re molting feathers, a natural process which probably irritates the skin. The ants may soothe this discomfort, despite what Ants in my Eyes Johnson led us to believe.
The ants’ presence could improve the health of the birds’ feathers and clear out parasites from the base of their plumage. Lice and mites are common freeloaders for birds, and they don’t even have the decency of ejecting beneficial butt-gland-goo or acid as they tramp across the skin.
Remarkably, the fun doesn’t even stop at ants, as some birds have been spotted employing the help of millipedes and even bombardier beetles. The latter makes for a particularly violent alternative to a dust bath, considering that, when threatened, the bombardier beetle mixes hydrogen peroxide, hydroquinone, and water. The cocktail triggers a potent exothermic reaction that causes the resulting liquid mixture to boil before it pops violently out through a valve on the tip of the abdomen.
I think I’ll stick with shower gel, ta.