Anting is a form of bird behavior that has yet to be explained by researchers and scientists. Even though hundreds of birds engage in anting all over the world.
Anting can take on different forms. Some birds will pick up ants in their beaks and rub the ant over their feathers, after which they eat the ant; while others will open their wings and lie down over an active anthill and allow ants to climb up onto them. But it does seem that one part of anting remains consistent: birds prefer using ants that produce formic acid. Ants use the formic acid their bodies produce as a defense mechanism, which they spray at their attackers, but at the same time provides birds with a certain something that scientists would love to discover.
An American Robin , holding an ant in its bill, spreads and lowers its wings and brings its tail forward between its legs, wiping the outer wing and tail feathers with the ant. The jay has been doing this for several minutes, sometimes losing its balance and stumbling a bit.
The behavior, called anting, is almost comical. It occurs when birds utilize ants in a stereotypic way. It can be active, as in the case of the Blue Jay, or passive, such as when a Wild Turkey or other bird crouches on an anthill with its wings and tail spread, allowing ants to crawl freely throughout its feathers.
Anting appears to be widespread and common. More than 200 species of birds - mostly songbirds - have been observed to ant. The ants come from two subfamilies, they don’t sting, and they produce defensive secretions to repel attackers. Ants in the first and largest group produce formic acid, which they eject from the tip of their abdomen. In the second subfamily, a repugnant oily liquid is secreted from anal glands.
The function of anting has been debated for years. Proposed explanations have generally related to comfort behavior or feather maintenance. Because anting episodes are most common in late summer and early fall, a period that includes heavy avian molting, some biologists associate anting with the soothing of skin irritated during rapid feather replacement.
A belief is that anting controls parasites, such as biting lice and feather mites, which live in the inner catacombs of a bird’s plumage. The concentration of formic acid in the solution emitted by ants is greater than 50 percent, which laboratory studies have shown to be strong enough to kill lice and mites.