Thursday, July 23, 2020

Anting

I am staying in a small garage apartment in Camden, Maine.  There are windows in the main room that look out onto a congregation of lovely trees, including a spectacular Eastern white pine, perhaps 80' tall.  A tree I'd be willing to fall on my knees before.

Looking out a window yesterday, I saw a fluttering of black near a rock nearby. The black was twisting and writhing.  Birds?  

Trusty binoculars at hand, I picked them up and focused.  Two crows.  They were moving about in the dirt on their bellies.  They were flashing their wings, often changing places, one moving over and around the other.  Constantly shifting.  Like a modern dance but an amateur one.

It seemed more intense than a normal dirt bath.  It went on and on.  Then one bird suddenly hopped onto a plank nearby.  Began preening.  Extensive beak work on the wings and feathers.

Then it was all over.  They flew away.

I went down to have a look.  I saw near the rock: hundreds of ants racing about, at double-speed, like a miniature Grand Central Station at 5:35pm on a Friday.  Heavy traffic!  Well, they'd just been stirred up by two black tornadoes.

What was...the deal?

I went upstairs and Googled, well, "Crows and ants."  And lo and behold, "Anting" came up.

"Anting is a maintenance behavior during which birds rub insects, usually ants, on their feathers and skin," Wiki says. 

A word and an activity in 75 years of living I'd never encountered.  Here's what Stanford University has to say about it:

"The purpose of anting is not well understood, but the most reasonable assumption seems to be that it is a way of acquiring the defensive secretions of ants primarily for their insecticidal, miticidal, fungicidal, or bactericidal properties and, perhaps secondarily, as a supplement to the bird's own preen oil." 

Come to think of it, how did the crows know that there were ants there?  A rush hour of ants?  I'd walked by the rock many times and not noticed ants.

Let there be mysteries.  

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