Do Birds Eat Ants [What Is Anting and Why Is It Done?]

birds eat ants

There’s no doubt that birds display some peculiar behavior. 

From birds like ostriches eating stones for digestion to tiny aggressive hummingbirds fighting off crows 10 times their size they constantly leave us in wonder.

Another strange but common behavior from birds is eating ants, but it doesn’t stop there.

Not only do birds eat ants, but they roll in them with a common process known as anting.

Let’s take a deeper look into the relationship between birds and ants, which birds eat ants, and exactly what anting is.

Do Birds Eat Ants?

With more than 11,000 species of bird, it should be expected to see a wide range of diets between them.

do birds eat ants

As birds are well known to eat a variety of insects, there should be no surprise that ants form a part of many of their diets.

More interesting, studies have shown that not only do birds eat ants, but more than 200 species of birds perform anting before the ants are ingested.

This process isn’t followed by all birds and interestingly doesn’t follow any significant pattern among families.

Hirundinidae, Alaudidae, Laniidae, Sylviidae, Paridae, and Sittidae do not commonly follow anting behavior, however, this is not a set rule.

Species found in the Corvidae, Sturnidae, Icteridae, Fringillidae, Ploceidae, and Turdidae families are most commonly found anting, however, once again this is not through all species.

Why Do Birds Eat Ants?

Nutrition is the name of the game when it comes to eating, and ants are no different when ingested by birds.

Worms, beetles, and insects (including ants) are excellent food sources for birds.

why do birds eat ants

Not only are ants abundant, but they come with an energy punch that has even turned the eyes of humans.

According to a study done on the nutritional values of certain insects, ants were found to contain 46.47g of protein per 100g of dried ants, 25.09g of fat, and 484.45 kcal/ 100g.

This is significantly higher than other protein sources eaten by humans such as cow meat which only contains 26g/ 100g.

Above their high protein value, ants offer nutrition in the form of fiber, vitamins, and minerals such as iron, zinc, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus.

Do Birds Eat Ants Out Of Preference or Necessity?

Ants are eaten by birds in a variety of ecosystems, but their consumption is disproportionately high in species that make their homes in arid locations.

One study done on the behavior of ant-eating birds in Southern Africa discussed the relationship between ant-eating for survival vs opportunity.

Although the study concluded that the relationship between ant-eating and annual rainfall was inversely proportional, no solid evidence was found to suggest a preference vs survival diet.

That being said, it was found that of the 545 species that were tracked, 179 were found feeding on ants or with ants in their stomachs.

Of these 179 species, those found in forested areas saw a significantly smaller number of ants eaten when compared to drier areas such as the Karoo.

This could suggest that ants are eaten as a means to replace other more favored food sources, although this is inconclusive.

That being said, the same study noted that there is a disproportion between aerial-foraging birds and ground-foraging ant eaters.

As the table below shows, it is significantly more likely for ground-foraging birds to feed on ants, however, nearly all of this intake was from winged ants.

Forage SiteNo. Of Bird SpeciesNo.Of Ants

Birds have been found to eat ants both from an opportunistic standpoint, as well as them being a core part of their diet.

Bee-eaters, swallows, and flycatchers are known to eat ants and termites opportunistically, usually when there is a large emergence after rainfall.

For species such as the broad-billed roller and blue-throated roller, ant alates form an important part of their diets during the breeding season.

This diet is such a cornerstone that the breeding season is time to begin when the ants begin swarming.

Why Do Birds Let Ants Crawl On Them?

If you have ever noticed a robin or raven or raven lying or walking over an ants nest in what seems like an attempt to let ants crawl on them, you may be wondering why.

This act is known as anting and is one of the stranger behaviors observed by birds.

There is no conclusive reason as to why birds let ants crawl on them, however, there are numerous theories that relate to grooming, pleasure, and safe ingestion.

What Is Anting

First observed in the early 19th century, but only focused on since the 1930s, anting has baffled ornithologists for years.

Anting is the peculiar process where birds rub insects (usual ants) on their feathers and skin, often agitating the ants in what seems like an attempt to aggravate them.

Following this, the ants are removed and thrown away or eaten.

Anting has been observed in over 200 species, both in captivity and nature, either through a passive or active anting process.

What Is Active Anting?

As the name suggests, during active anting, birds take ants in their beaks and place them on their bodies, usually to the lower surface of their wing feathers.

The ants used are usually Ants belonging to the subfamily Formicinae which are known to secrete formic acid as a deterrent.

The bird will spread its wings out on the floor and quickly apply the ant, rubbing from the bottom of its feathers to the top.

Ants are usually only used once and then replaced, and never seem to be used more than three times.

Active anting usually lasts several miniatures to a half hour, however, longer periods have been recorded.

What Is Passive Anting?

During passive anting, birds walk over, hover, or stand over ant hills and nests, allowing the ants to crawl onto the tips of their wings and tail feathers.

Why Do Birds Perform Anting?

Although there have been countless studies and observations on anting, there remain to be multiple theories as to why it is done.

why do birds perform anting

Of these theories, 6 are most agreed on and summarized in this report by N.S. Morozov.

Possible reasons for anting include:

1. Prevention and removal of ectoparasites and undesirable inhabitants such as fleas, mites, lice, fungi, and bacteria.

2. Improved grooming through an increase in saliva, or the removal of “old grease”

3. Increase in vitamin D production from the exposed oil gland to sunlight, which is swallowed during feather grooming

4. To aid with skin irritation during malting

5. The removal of venom or pungent substances used as defense mechanisms by insects to reduce the amount that enters the bird’s system when the ant is eaten

6. Ants provide a pleasant sensation, similar to the idea of being lightly tickled

Because a variety of insects are used for anting, some of which don’t contain any venom, as well as the fact that ants are not always eaten, has left some confusion as to why birds ant.

As far as ornithologists can tell, it could be due to any or all of the above hypotheses.

Which Birds Eat Ants?

Because there are over 200 species of birds that have been found to perform anting or to eat ants, there is no way to list them all here.

That said, here are a few common birds that eat ants and where to find them.

1. Pigeons

Pigeons are commonly found eating ants and other insects to supplement their diet. 

Although ants aren’t a go-to for pigeons, they will feed on them when the bird is hungry and there are ants in the vicinity.

Ants aren’t particularly nutritious to pigeons, which dictates a more opportunistic feeding process for feral pigeons.

2. Sparrows

Sparrows are mostly granivorous, which means they eat mostly seeds.

That said, they supplement their seed-based diet with insects, especially when raising their young, and require additional energy.

Sparrows commonly feed on fruits, berries, nuts, grains and vegetables, and human scraps such as oatmeal.

Additionally, they supplement their diets with beetles, small frogs, caterpillars, and a variety of insects such as ants.

3. Woodpeckers

Like all birds, woodpeckers have their favorite foods and ants come high up on the desired menu.

Woodpeckers eat more ants than most birds and can eat thousands at a time.

One member of the woodpecker family, the Northern Flicker, is known to have ingested over 5,000 ants in a single sitting.

4. Hummingbirds

It is well known that hummingbirds have a love for nectar and it makes up one of their favorite foods, but their diet doesn’t consist only of this sweet goodness.

Hummingbirds often feed on bugs and other insects as a cornerstone of their diet.

Ants are included in this feast, however, they are not a go-to, and are usually only eaten when found at a feeding point.

That said, because ants have the same fondness for sugar, finding ants around your nectar feeder or flowers is quite common.

5. Blue-Jays

Blue-Jays eat a variety of foods ranging from nuts, berries, and fruit, to worms and other small insects.

Ants form an essential part of this diet.

Blue-Jays don’t only eat ants but are commonly seen practicing anting, both passively and actively like the one shown below.

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