Several weeks ago, after I wrote that I was not sure why cardinals pick up and crush ants to rub over their bodies, I received an email from a reader, who wrote that birds did this to keep parasites off their bodies.
This led me to take my "Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds," by John Terres, off the book shelf and look up anting.
"Anting is a term for the action of birds in putting crushed or live ants among their feathers, supposedly in feather maintenance to rid their plumage of lice, mites and other parasites," it stated.
More than 200 birds practice anting, and 24 species of ants are used; however, birds also have been known to use orange and lemon flesh, coffee grounds, cigarette and cigar butts and things in nature, such as beetles and sumac berries.
For their protection, ants give off a formic acid. The word ant is derived from ante, and the original meaning of the word was "the biter." The ant's family name of Formicidae is derived from the Latin word formica, meaning ant.
Birds' individual feathers are frail, which means they spend a considerable amount of time in the care and maintenance of them. Preening, nibbling, bathing, sunning and anting are all ways that birds keep their feathers in good condition.
When preening, the bird strokes its feathers, which then return to their correct positions and forms. This often involves adding oil to the feathers from a gland at the base of the bird's tail.
A bird uses its bill to nibble the feathers to straighten them out, ensuring the barbules are all zipped up.
Birds bathe in many ways, with some birds simply splashing in the water while others, such as the robin, get deeper into the water, flick their wings open, spread their tails and, at the same time, dip their heads and shoulders under the water. They also will throw the water back over their bodies.
Birds such as swallows fly low over the water and actually dip into the water for a very short time
Some species also take dust baths when water is scarce or if a sticky resin or berry juice is on their feathers. By bathing in dust, each particle of dust absorbs a portion of the foreign material, which then is shaken off. I often have seen where grouse and turkeys have dusted in the middle of dirt roads and even on top of ant hills.
No matter if a bird takes a water or dust bath, it always concludes with a preening.
Birds also take sun baths by fluffing out their feathers to expose the skin underneath. They also flatten their bodies on the ground, with tail feathers and wings spread. Some scientists feel that sun bathing is important in helping to dislodge feather parasites and also changing molecules in their preening oil into their needed vitamin D.
Perhaps the strangest behavior in birds is anting. Active anting is when the bird picks up the ant and places it on its body. Some birds, such as the cardinal, will crush the ants before rubbing them on their bodies.
In other species of birds, live ants are placed on their bodies. Ants are used because of their formic acid, which helps to rid the birds of parasites, mites, etc.
Some birds appear to become excited when the ants are crawling on their bodies. I remember when I unknowingly sat near an ant hill, and ants began crawling on my body - I am sure that my reaction was not the same as a bird's.
The other form is passive anting, in which the bird finds an ant hill or nest and lays among them, allowing the ants to crawl all over their bodies.
Some birds also do mutual preening in which they help each other. This most often is done at the nest site by birds that usually are paired for the nesting season.
Another form of feather cleaning is smoke bathing, where the bird will stand on a smoking chimney, with its wings outstretched. Several times, during this past winter, I watched as starlings landed on our neighbor's chimney, and I assumed they were trying to warm themselves; however, I'm now wondering whether the starlings were taking smoke baths.
Wildlife never ceases to amaze us, and our tiny feathered friends certainly are amazing.
Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.