Anting – ants in my pants?

on 16th October 2005

R. Subaraj recently shared with Richard Hale and myself an incident Kelvin K.P. Lim related to him years ago. I found it so interesting that I persuaded Kelvin to share his observation with us. For those of you who do not know Kelvin, he is the author of a number of Singapore Science Centre guide books on fishes, amphibians and reptiles.

“It was 9:10 am on the 7th of April, 1988. I was at the Kent Ridge NUS campus outside the then Zoology Department. I was walking in the car park when I noticed a single White-vented Myna (now Javan Myna, Acridotheres javanicus) on the grass verge nearby carefully picking up live kerengga ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) and placing them one at a time under its wings. Each time it did this, the bird went into a curious dance that involved flopping around on the grass with its wings outstretched and beak opened.

It gave me the impression that it was reacting (most likely in pain) to the bites inflicted by the ants under its wings. It looked like masochistic behaviour. It was possible that the formic acid secreted by the ants helped get rid of parasitic insects that were on its body.”

Since receiving his note, I found out that this phenomenon is known as “anting” and that at least 250 species of mainly songbirds have been recorded indulging in this behaviour.

To rid their feathers of bacteria and fungi that can cause damage, or even lice and other ecto-parasites, they place ants on their plumage. The formic acid given out by the ants does the work. There are also cases of birds using snails, beetles, wasps, millipedes and even discarded cigarette butts and orange peel for this purpose. Other birds lie or sit on an ant nest, wings spread, for the ants to crawl through their feathers.

Thanks to Kelvin, a new aspect of bird behaviour has opened up for the Bird Ecology Study Group to look into.

Anting has not been properly documented locally. Please keep an eye on this interesting behaviour when next you go out birding.

NOTE: Accounts of anting posted between October 2005 and August 2008 have now been written up and published in the 2008 issue of the on-line journal, Nature in Singapore (Vol. 1, pp. 23-25). A PDF file of Anting in Singapore birds is available HERE.

YC Wee
16th October 2005

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

Other posts by YC Wee

13 Responses

  1. It is indeed befitting that my first post on this blog involves both a bird and a plant part… and a mollusc.

    I was browsing the archives of the Journal of Field Ornithology and I came across an intriguing article on a different genre of “anting”.

    Eric WanderWerf from the Zoology Dept of the University of Hawaii reported a most interesting observation in J. Field Ornitho., vol. 76, no. 2, 134-137, April 2005.

    The Elepaio (Chasiempis sandwichensis), a Hawaiian endemic monarch flycatcher used a garlic snail (Oxychilus alliarius) and the fruit of Brazilian pepper or Christmas berry (Schinus terebinthifolius) on separate occassions to wipe itself followed by preening. And both “anting objects” are known to contain chemical compunds with antibiotic properties.

    From the limited abstract (I do not have full access to the article), it suggests that anting (sensu lato) may be a learned behaviour instead of an innate one. This is because both the garlic snail and the Brazilian pepper are not native to Hawaii. It is also interesting to note that there are no native ant species on Hawaii.

  2. Yes, I did read the abstract. And birds even use camphor balls for the purpose. If anting is a learned behaviour, is it possible to “teach” our local birds to ant? I would love to have an image of a local bird anting. YC

  3. To contribute to the discussion as to whether ‘anting’ is innate or learned behaviour…………

    I have kept several Mynas in my lifetime. Some caught from nests as chicks, others saved from cats on their maiden flights.

    One of these was a male bird which i removed from the nest in the roof of my condo at the age of not more than a week old. This bird accompanied me almost everyday in the afternoons and evenings when i patrolled the condo looking for some animal or insect to observe.

    One of the behaviours that was exhibited at a very young age (when it was still begging for food) was the instinct to splash water with its wings and enjoy a good bath.

    I had just dumped the chick in the sink together with the ice cream box in which it was kept and slowly ran the tap, intending to wash the tub and also give the bird its first bath. But before I could do anything, bird seemed to instinctively react to the water flowing beneath its feet. Before I knew it. It was dunking its chest on the water and splattering water all over the toilet. So much for bathing 101….this candidate is earmarked for direct PhD in bathing. Eventually I had even dared it to bathe in a tub of water that was so deep that only its head would be above the water level. The lure of a good bath never stopped him. But he was very cautious with water levels more than 3 inches deep.

    With regards to ‘Anting’…..
    We used to patrol the greenery around the condo together for his evening snacks. Anything i chased out from the grass, he would chase down and eat. Any other myna hanging around the area and we would end up with a fight which (with my help) he would never lose. One evening, he happened to walk over an ant mound. Initially intrigued by the ants, he later found them to be foul tasting and started to attack them. The ants of course reponded by mobbing him and getting into his feathers and all. I have seen many young birds killed by ants and was a little concerned by the increasing number of ants getting onto the bird. But as much as i tried to discourage him from mucking around with the ants, he kept getting by and stupidly standing right on top of the mound. Then his behaviour suddenly took me by surprise. Intermittent between his initial actions of attacking the ants, he would suddenly suddenly prostrate himself on the ground and spread his wings and puff up his plumage. I had thought that he had a few ant bites too many and was getting injured. But every time i went back to help him up. He appeared absolutely fine. So i stood there and observed for a while. (would have been excellent video footage). After about two minutes of intense ‘anting’. He would break away from the ant mound and preen himself and get rid of the ants. And all of a sudden. His intense interest of the ant mound just vanishes and we are back looking for tasty afternoon snacks.

    He would ‘ant’ himself once a week or even less. Probably because we allowed him a bath everyday. Once again…..the fact that this bird has never observed another bird ‘anting’ but seemed to know what to do with the ants points in the direction that the behaviour seems to be innate, although the wild birds seem to do it more professionally. My little ‘Sidewinder’,as i called him, apparently had some idea of what ‘anting’ is all about hard coded in that bird brain of his.

  4. Thanks Jeremy for your most intertesting input. Your account cannot be allowed to lie buried under ‘comments’ and needs to be highlighted as one of the blog postings. I will do so in due course. If you happen to read this, would appreciate if you could contact me as I am sure we can use a talent like you for our BESGroup. YC

  5. Great article. Having answers to why birds behave as they do is much more interesting to be than just identifying them. I am new to this site and catching up by reading up the past posting.

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