Photographer Tony Austin knew he had gotten lucky when a murder of crows landed near him, on a recent nature walk. But then one of the birds started acting very strangely. Austin started shooting — and he was astounded later, when he enlarged his photos: Tthe crow had large black ants all over its body.
“I noticed there were like little bumps all over this bird that was flopping around,” he says. “And sure enough, it was covered in ants.”
Even stranger, the crow had seemed to purposefully put ants on itself. Austin had been confused; now he was mystified. Looking for help to solve his mystery, he posted a photo of the crow on a Facebook group for wildlife photographers in his home area of Victoria, British Columbia.
Caught in the act of anting
In response to Austin’s post, an answer soon came: the crow was merely “anting” — spreading ants on their feathers and wings. The practice has long been documented, but it’s not entirely understood.
A leading theory is that it’s all about cleanliness.
“Ants have defensive secretions, chemical weapons they use to fight off other insects and fungi, so if you smear what they’ve got all over your feathers, you’re stealing their fungicides, miticides, insecticides and biocides,” as Robert Krulwich reported for NPR.
Another theory suggests birds might use ants like an avian aftershave, leaving their skin tingly and soothed after losing their feathers through molting.
“It seems that no one is really clear on why they do that, which is kind of mystifying,” Austin says, “but exciting as well.”
Because Austin was using a long camera lens from only 40 feet away, his photos captured the scene in high detail. He posted the photo to several photographers’ websites — and within 10 or 15 minutes “it went literally crazy,” as people liked and shared the image.
A ‘godsend’ opportunity, nearly missed
Austin nearly missed his chance to see anting up close. When he spotted the crows, he was walking back to his car after a fruitless three-hour walk through the Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary. The murder of crows was off to his left, and too far away to see well. But that soon changed.
“I kept going and they all suddenly flew over and landed on the gravel path about 40 feet from me, which was really a godsend,” Austin says.
And then the anting began.
“It would sort of flap its wings on the ground and then hop into the air and disappear into the foliage on the side of the gravel road, and then hop back onto the gravel. And I couldn’t understand what it was doing.”
Only one of the crows was anting, Austin says. At first, he suspected the bird might be in distress, having perhaps landed in an anthill by mistake. But while its fellow crows seemed curious about the spectacle, they showed no sign of concern.
The murder was unruffled
“You don’t often see crows that close. They were all strutting around,” Austin says.
“Only the one was taking this dirt bath, which I thought was quite interesting. The others were walking around looking at it. They were certainly quite interested in what was going on, but they didn’t seem alarmed. For a smart bird, if another bird is in distress, I think they do tend to show that they’re quite upset. But these guys didn’t seem to be bothered at all.”
Anting has been seen in a wide range of birds. But crows, as some say, have a particular set of skills. They’ve amazed people by memorizing human faces, for instance. They use tools, and their social mores including holding funerals.
When told that the crows from the park might remember him because they can recall human faces, Austin laughed as he replied, “Oh, is that right? I hope they’re not upset with the coverage they’re getting.”