Many different songbird species have been observed picking up single ants or small groups and rubbing them on their feathers. Less commonly, other songbirds "ant" by spreading their wings and lying on an anthill, and squirming or otherwise stimulating the ants to swarm up among their feathers.

The purpose of anting is not well understood, but the most reasonable assumption seems to be that it is a way of acquiring the defensive secretions of ants primarily for their insecticidal, miticidal, fungicidal, or bactericidal properties and, perhaps secondarily, as a supplement to the bird's own preen oil. The former explanation is reinforced by a growing body of evidence on the biocidal properties of ant secretions and by an observation of a jungle Myna (Acridotheres fuscus) actively "anting" with a millipede, whose potent defensive secretions (evolved to fend off the millipede's enemies) could be smelled from 15 feet away. Likewise, the observed correlation of anting activity with high humidity might be explained by the documented fungicidal properties of ant secretions. Because the seasonal timing of anting and molting (spring and summer) often correspond, some have suggested that anting may soothe the skin during feather replacement. It seems more likely that the seasonal relationship simply reflects the greater activity of ants during those periods.

Recording anting and related behavior is an activity where birders can easily gather information of interest to biologists. Those who live in or visit the Vancouver area, for example, should be alert to the possibility that the Crested Myna might show behavior similar to its close jungle relative. If you see anting, be sure to make detailed notes of the circumstances in which it is taking place.

SEE: Disease and Parasitism; Bathing and Dusting; Head Scratching; Tool Using.

Copyright ® 1988 by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye.