Bird behaviors can be curious and fascinating when we take the time to watch and observe them.

One of the stranger behaviors our feathered friends get up to is called “Anting.”

Basically, anting occurs when a bird rubs ants on themselves. Pretty self-explanatory right? Methods vary, some birds sit directly on an anthill and let the ant colony swarm all over their bodies ::shudder:: Others pick them up in their beaks and rub them over each of their feathers.

Regardless of the method, over 200 different species of birds have been observed engaging in these “anting” antics.

So what gives? Why do they do this?

Since the 1930’s, scientists have been trying to figure out the why behind this wacky behavior, and it’s still unknown! There are many theories, and the most popular hypothesis has to do with formic acid, a substance contained by most ants. When an ant is crushed, it secretes formic acid. Once in contact with a bird’s skin, the acid kills the mites and other parasites that have taken up host on the bird’s body. Formic acid may also soothe irritated skin that occurs during molting. Other scientists think that maybe it just feels good!

The best time to try and catch sight of “anting” behavior is during hot and humid weather, when parasitic pests are most bothersome. This is also the time when molting happens, so although “anting” can be tough to observe out in nature, you’ll have a better opportunity during the summer months. Keep your eyes peeled for Blue Jays and Crows, as they are common birds who practice “anting.”

Bird beaks are perfect for nabbing ants, crushing them and rubbing them on their wings. Investigate how this adaptation works with this fun activity you can do at home:

Put a few different dried foods (we used sunflower seeds), in a bowl and gather some common items to mimic a beak. Dried pasta and cereals also work great!

Tweezers, Straws, Chopsticks, and Pliers can act like a bird beak in action.

Experiment with moving the items from one bowl to another.

Ask questions like, “How easy/difficult is it to pick up?”, “Can you crush the item like a bird would with an ant?”, “Why do you think birds need sharp beaks?”, “Can they eat a little or a lot with this type of mouth?”

Next time you head out for a walk, keep a sharp eye out for birds and their “anting” antics!


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