The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Friday, September 02, 2005

by Ruth Beasley

You just never know what you might come across when you engage in a study of birds. One reason birds are so much fun is that the subject is more vast that most people ever imagine. A prime example of what I mean is the apparently common Bird World activity known as “anting” — something I’d never heard of until now.

But before we talk about anting, let’s first discuss formic acid, for that’s what birds use when they practice the act of anting.

Formic acid is secreted in small amounts by ants, wasps, millipedes, and bees as a form of self defense. It’s also a substance manufac-tured by the Celanese Corporation in Pampa, Texas — according to some, the only manu-facturer of formic acid in the United States.

In large enough doses, formic acid is a deadly poison that targets the skin, lungs, kidneys, liver, and eyes. It can kill a full-grown human in a hundred gruesome ways. But it’s also terribly useful, and is found in items as diverse as electroplate, potassium salt, latex, leather, perfume, and vinyl resin.

As far as human beings go, the use of for-mic acid is a carefully controlled and regulated activity, for the safety of all involved. The fact that birds have learned to benefit from the use of formic acid proves, at least to me, that birds are smarter than we think.

What do birds use formic acid for? For one thing, it’s an insecticide — specifically, a miticide, but it also kills lice, ticks, and a vari-ety of other pesky insects. It also serves as a fungicide, and will kill bacteria as well. Because anting is often observed when birds are molt-ing, it’s believed that the acid can supplement natural preening oils and soothe skin made itchy by emerging feathers.
But what is anting, I hear you ask. Well, there is active anting and passive anting. Active anting is when a bird picks up one or several ants (or wasps, bees, or millipedes) and either places them under the feathers, or holds them in the beak to rub up and down the feathers.

Passive anting is equally strange: a passive anter is a bird that stands, lies down, or rolls around on an ant-bed, causing the ants to swarm onto the bird of their own volition. Passively anting birds often stand with their wings outspread, letting the ants have at it with stoic resignation.

The object of all true anting is to rile the in-sect into releasing its store of formic acid by biting or stinging the bird, or simply exuding the acid out the stomach. The birds appear immune to the acid themselves, and while they some-times become quite agitated when anting, it seems to do more good than harm. ( Just imag-ine the agitation you would feel if you found yourself crawling with ants!) The risk is appar-ently worth it, though, for a stoical anting bird repeats the ritual again and again.

Not all birds do it, but more than 200 dif-ferent kinds of birds worldwide have been caught in the act of anting. Starlings and tana-gers actively ant; crows are passive anters. European birds known to ant include babblers, weavers, and the Eurasian Jay.

Birds engage in pseudo-anting with items such as apple peels, mothballs — even ciga-rette butts! Most commonly, though, they en-gage in true anting with authentic ants.

So, it cannot be said that birds don’t know how to use tools. In this case they utilize living tools to facilitate their own well-being — prov-ing once again that we should never, ever un-derestimate the birds.

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