Avian Antics

May 2009

Some birds enjoy ants in their pants!

Ken and Margaret recently reported Satin Bowerbirds, Ptilonorhynchus violaceus, deliberately rubbing large ants through their plumage in northern NSW. Why do they do this? What are the ants?

Answer

Over 200 species of birds are known to treat their feathers with the defensive secretions of ants. This distinctive set of behaviours is known as anting. It is not known why birds do this. Likely reasons are for feather maintenance and comfort. It is possibly relevant that the acidic ant secretions kill insects so anting behaviour may reduce loads of external parasites. It may also assist in the removal of stale oils in the feathers.

Sugar Ant - Camponotus intrepidus Sugar Ant - Camponotus intrepidus

The ants being used by the bowerbirds were particularly large and possessed powerful jaws. A specimen was carefully collected and sent to the Inquiry Centre for identification.

The ants are a sugar ant, Camponotus intrepidus. These large ants are usually nocturnal and live in large underground nests. The reason the bowerbirds could access large numbers of them during the day was almost certainly because the ants were "swarming", with many winged ants emerging.  Staff from the Inquiry Centre have collected a live nest of this species of ant. It is now on display at the Inquiry Centre.

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