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Caribbean Grackle doing some anting.

Maybe you frown upon the title, but I can assure you the term exists. Just check the Oxford Dictionary of English. It actually describes a very interesting type of behavior involving, you guessed it, ants! The behavior is displayed by certain species of birds, and two types have been recognized.

In active anting, the bird collects a mouthful of ants, squashes them and rubs the mush over and in between its feathers. In passive anting the bird positions itself on top of an anthill, tramples around a bit to stir up the (unhappy) ants which then will start crawling all over the bird. Scientists always try to interpret the reason behind such behavior, and several schools of thought have emerged. The most widely accepted theory tells us that the birds do this in order to benefit from the formic acid the ants secrete as a defense mechanism. This chemical seems to condition the feathers and to take care of irritating parasites. Natural feather conditioner and pesticide.

Another school promotes a more bizarre explanation. According to some scientists the formic acid has no function other than inducing a level of well-being and even ecstasy in the bird. Birds do drugs? Well, why not? Humans, another animal species, do. Often to unacceptable levels.

Female Caribbean Grackle.

The one time we observed this behavior, at least the passive version of it, was during a photo-shoot of a recent addition to our ecology. These birds were quickly identified as Caribbean Grackles (Quiscalus lugubris), and are possibly stragglers from the mainland. We tend not to consider these birds as exotic or even invasive species because their distribution includes South America and several Islands in the Caribbean, and they ended up in Curacao on their own. Furthermore, their preferred nesting habitat – imported palm trees like Washingtonians – were not used by anything else, so they could freely claim this artificial niche. By the way, the first sign of these birds was not a sighting, but noticing a performance of their beautiful song we instantly recognized from a trip to Dominica. A search for the artists led to these newcomers that some consider to look unfriendly because of the white eye (hence the scientific name). We disagree, of course!

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