The surprising ANTic of birds

Humans have a propensity to apply the strangest things on ourselves. Do a quick search on Google and you will find breast milk soap bars, dead algae cleansers and nightingale poop cream.

It turns out that humans are not the only animals who appreciate the use of  ‘natural remedies’.

Over 250 species of birds have been recorded exhibiting a behavior known as Anting. (K.P. Lim, R Subaraj, YC, 2005) And as you might have guessed, what happens is that a bird would pick up ants with its beak and rub them all over its plumage. Sometimes a bird might also spread its wings over an anthill and leave the ants to swarm it.

Take a look at this video.

(Caution: This video might induce itching.)

Watch closely at the posture the bird adopts. Notice how both wings are  thrust forward and how its tail is perpetually fanned open on the ground? While it is evidently aware of the swarm of ants crawling on its plumage, it does little to get rid of the ants save for the occasional twitching and flopping.

Why would a bird anoint its plumage with live crawling ants? This remains an enigma.

Some animal behaviorists hypothesize that anting is nothing more than a hedonistic act, existing solely for the pleasure it gives the bird (Zool, J, Lond, 1966). They claim no biological or evolutionary reasons for anting.

Others have put forward theories suggesting that there are more to anting than pleasure.

For instance, it is possible that anting helps birds to maintain their plumage and get rid of parasites like louse flies, fungi and bacteria (Eisner, T, Aneshansley, D, 2008). The secret lies in the formic acid released by the ants in offense or defense, which when transferred to their plumage, doubles as “feather conditioner” and “insect repellent”.

Contrary to what it appears to be, anting may also actually soothe irritation experienced by birds during molting, a process when new feathers emerge and push through the skin.

Pretty ingenious of the birds to figure out Nature’s very own Dettol, ant it?

Literature cited:

Eisner, T, Aneshansley, D, 2008. “Anting” in Blue Jays: evidence in support of a food-preparatory function. Chemoecology, 18 (4):  197-203

Zool, J, Lond, 1966 Anting and the problem of self-stimulation. Journal of Zoology, 149 (2): 134-162

“Anting-Ants in my pants” by Kelvin KP Lim, R Subaraj & YC. 16 Oct 2005. URL: (accessed on 15 Mar 2013)

“Jay being attacked by Ants 29/07/10-Anting” by bluety Youtube Channel, 14 Auguest 2010. URL: (accessed on 23 Mar 2013)