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Anting in Birds

Monday, October 27, 2008

Watching our backyard scene for 16 years now, we've been privileged to see recurring themes in bird behavior. Did you know that gray birches host a lot of ants, and that black-throated green warblers like to pick the ants off the trunks and run them through their plumage? Me, neither, and had I seen it once, I'd have thought it was a nice thing to see, but now we see it every autumn.A female black-throated green warbler picks herself an ant off a birch trunk.

I first saw a black-throated green warbler anting in Salmonier, Newfoundland in 1981 or so, when many of you whippersnappers were watching reruns of The Brady Bunch. Anting birds crush ants and pass the bodies through their plumage, presumably anointing themselves with that pungent sweet smelling formic acid that mashed ants (and mad ants) secrete. Phew. Maybe it routs feather mites that would otherwise chew their barbules to powder. Maybe it discourages lice. Maybe it's a warbler's version of Origins' "Perfect World" Green Tea Skin Protector, something I am hopelessly hooked on. My nictitating membranes flip up over my eyeballs when I use that stuff.

Maybe birches attract a certain species of ant that's good for anting, or maybe it's simpler than that: the ants that trickle up and down its trunk in stuttering lines show up well against white bark. Whatever the reason, warblers like to ant on birches.First, you get yourself an ant or two.Then you pass it through your wing and tail feathers, just as if you were preening, but with an ant in your bill.Belly feathers get some, too. Ooh, it smells so good.Bring your leg over your wing and scratch that face. Ahhhh.Feeling ever so dapper now. Smooth, silky.

Oh, look. A lady black-throated green.She likes to ant, too.

Back to our little gent.Beautiful beyond description, and freshly dressed with formic acid, he's ready to migrate. Ah, warblers, how I will miss them when they leave. We're down to yellow-rumps now, the latest migrants, maybe a Tennessee or a stray Nashville.See you next April, dearie.


I love it! I think I will go eat some ants now for myself.

Jared from Denton Tx


My fave part of this post is the finale. You really captured something there in words and pix.

Thanks, B.

Jayrod: would you eat Brylcreem? As far as I know they just mash the ants and use them as hair dressing, but they don't eat them. But as with everything, I could be wrong!

My word verification: Manics. How did they know?

The post is great enough about ants and warblers, but how do you think of this stuff?

"Maybe it's a warbler's version of Origins' "Perfect World" Green Tea Skin Protector, something I am hopelessly hooked on. My nictitating membranes flip up over my eyeballs when I use that stuff."

What's with you? Whatever it is, it's all so good...


Down here in the Everglades, my birding eye goes into atrophy because there are so many big and such prolific numbers of wading birds. Not that I was much of a birder before, ... but the mega fauna has really spoiled me. And they don't migrate for winter ... although we get some snow birds.

Mare, thanks for liking my stream-of-consciousness jabbering. I don't know what's coming out before it comes out.

Robert, I heard a Minnesotan say today that he'd heard a Floridian say that there are so many snowbirds, maybe they should consider opening a season on them. Snort.

Nice exit shot!

I always appreciate the ant smell, but never knew exactly what it was--aside from a great warning that one may be working his way up my pant leg while I work the gardens.

And certainly never saw birds anting.
Note to self: must find better binocs

That is such interesting behavior to witness! Who knew! Smart little warblers.

Fascinating! I had never heard of that before! (Although I think I will personally pass on the mashed ant beauty treatment.)

What a great story and pictures. I didn't even know that ants had a smell!

Julie,as the bumperstickers say:if its tourist season , why can't we shoot 'em?.

We shoot snowbirds all the time at the house-pictures of them!
Come on down for breakfast on the deck with the hummers and PABUs, then we'll take you down the street to see our local Flamingo!

Yet another important role played by ants, but talk about being drafted into an undesirable service!

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