Anting in Birds — Medical or Behavioral?

Ever since my Avian Veterinarian, Dr. Rolfe, returned from a seminar, I’ve been on a personal mission. My goal is to find more information on an avian behavior referred to as “anting”. Very few people have ever heard of “anting” or may have seen it without being aware of what their birds were really doing. Dr. Rolfe, suggested I research “anting behavior” on the internet as a possible explanation for some behaviors I’d noticed in my imported birds. This topic had come up at the seminar and was mentioned in Issue #38 of the Pet Bird Report. The article, by Lynne Page, was titled “Anting Behavior in Kakarikis”. After reading it and talking to Dr. Rolfe, we were both fairly certain this was what we had observed with Venus, a Goffin’s Cockatoo I had taken in. Venus was adopted by me because of her problems with extreme feather plucking. At the time I received her, the only fully feathered places on her body were her head and neck. The rest of her body was pretty much bare with not so much as down feathers.Many of us in the world of aviculture have lived with birds that pick at their feathers, pluck them out, or mutilate their bodies. Most of us came to the conclusion these behaviors in our birds are caused by either medical or emotional problems. I’ve never heard anyone suggest plucking behavior might be our parrot’s exaggerated way of adjusting to their lack of ants for use in a natural grooming behavior. Maybe they respond in this extreme manner as their way to adjust to the lack of available biting ants, which might possibly be used for pest control in wild birds. In our search for answers, we’ve had our Avian Vets run a battery of tests, trying to find a physical cause before assuming this is a behavioral problem. But…..how many times have we really observed the behavior in a domestic setting? I mean, to the extent of watching our birds for hours a day from close range, questioning the reasons for each of their many antics and behaviors including things as “normal” as tucking one leg up when birds sleep.

On a daily basis I’ve observed Venus furiously taking mouthfuls of pellets, splintered wood, fruit peels, and other items and frantically doing what appeared to be trying to “plant” these items in her skin. I used to tell my vet that it looked like Venus was trying to “feed” her skin. I was intrigued with this behavior. I have 140 birds and have only seen this in Venus and my Moluccan Cockatoos (which are all imported birds), Venus being the worst plucked bird of the three. While she holds the pellets, fruit rinds, or tiny wood splinters to her skin, she rubs in a way which suggests she may have used “anting” behavior in her natural habitat. A lot of times while doing this Venus has her eyes closed and appears to be in almost a trance-like ecstasy. She acts a lot like we would if we had a bad case of poison ivy and relieved the itching by using an analgesic lotion or aloe vera gel on it.

Anting behavior has been reported in tame and wild crows, the Carolina Wren, blue jays, the common raven, woodpeckers and songbirds, but I found no information referring to parrots and anting behavior other than the Kakaris mentioned in Ms. Page’s article. One article mentioned more information could be found in the book “Natural Acts” in which David Quammen describes anting behavior. Some have also suggested the use of fresh plant materials in bird nests may be a form of chemical defense against pathogenic bacteria, fungi, lice and other parasites.

The few articles or reports I’ve found have mentioned many items used as replacements for ants when they weren’t available. Observers have documented seeing wild birds using items such as ashes from campfires or grills, strong smelling items or those with high acid content, raw onions, oranges, lemons and grapefruit peels, millipedes, lime, plant materials which may have anti-pathogenic and defensive action against parasitic activity, wasps, beetles, coffee, moth balls, picnic items such as pickles, mustard, vinegar, beer, and cigarette butts. Jan Mahnken states in The Backyard Bird-Lovers Guide “Blue Jays have been photographed using still burning cigarette butts.” I can believe cigarette butts have been used for their analgesic properties because I had an uncle who had placed chewing tobacco on my brother’s finger when he burned it on the car cigarette lighter. The idea of it made all of us who were watching ill but….the pain went away according to my brother. When I was still a smoker I remember successfully using cigarette smoke to minimize a toothache by holding the smoke in my cheek to numb the spot.

Anting is a bazaar behavior which can be observed in either a passive or active form. In passive anting, a bird will stand or lay very still on an ant hill or mound and allow the ants to swarm in and out of his feathers, biting the skin. When I was a child I made the mistake of standing on an ant hill where a lot of angry red ants resided. I don’t recall finding any part of this time as particularly pleasurable or soothing, Maybe the birds feel it is the lesser of two evils since it’s been suggested the chemical formic acid which is richer in biting ants than in the more easy going species, may be used as a natural form of chemical defense in repelling infestation by ecoparasites.

In active anting, a bird will pick up ants in their beak. The bodies of the ants are then crushed to release the formic acid, and rub this “balm” over the skin, through the tail and wing feathers and occasionally the back or other body parts. Birds have also been seen holding the ants against their skin, allowing the ants to bite particular locations on their bodies. This sort of grooming activity is carried out through a series of twisting, turning, and extreme contortions. It’s been suggested birds use the formic acid in the ants as a sort of grooming ritual to remove or thwart off uninvited parasites such as lice or mites. Dr. Stephen W. Kress, a research biologist with the National Audubon Society says he believes birds use anting behavior to stop pain and itching from new feathers as they grow in. If that is what Venus is trying to imitate, she has an interesting technique which makes her antics a joy to observe.

Venus seems to truly enjoy mimicking “anting” behavior and also appears pleased with the fact I’m amazed by it. She’ll stop for a few minutes in a frozen pose if she sees I’m not watching her any longer. This pose may be one where she’s on one leg with the other thrown around at an odd angle and her beak touching the point where her tail would have been and her eyes fixed on me. A pretzel has never been so twisted. Once Venus realizes she has my full attention, she returns to this curious behavior. The postures taken by a bird during anting can be quite comical if this is indeed what she is doing. The majority of the time the bird will make a lot of quick jerky movements between the source of the item being used and the final location being “treated” at the time. Venus uses almost jabbing strokes and seems to get frustrated when the items don’t stay where she places them. I’m assuming in the wild the ants will pretty much take a firm hold where they are placed. I’ve tried to describe this behavior to many people but those I contacted about it had never seen or heard of birds doing this. Even my avian vet hadn’t known what I was talking about until she saw it for herself.

I’ve discussed “anting” behavior in parrots with my brother who lived in New Guinea for 10 years while working in the mission field. During his tour he had a large aviary where over 200 wild parrots of many species resided. He never intended to cage them, but when they decided to stay after he’d fed them by hanging fruits from the trees, he fenced in a “safe” area for them. On many occasions he had other birds hang on the outside of the fence trying to get in for the abundant offerings of fruit he gave the birds. Most of them wouldn’t leave once they were allowed in, so the numbers of birds in his care increased. During this time he observed a lot of natural behaviors which most of us have not been fortunate enough to see. I think those of us with imported parrots may get to see a lot more of the “normal” parrot mannerisms.

During his time in New Guinea, my brother made many trips into the bush when traveling from tribe to tribe. While on these trips, he had the opportunity to observe the native parrots in a totally natural environment. He states he never observed birds on ant hills or mounds, but had seen them using branches, leaves, flowers, and in his aviary, fruit peels or rinds in the manner I described. Don told me he hadn’t lost any of the birds in the 10 years and they had all been in fine feather.

When we discussed what the birds ate he stated the main part of their diets consisted of foods such as guava, mango, papaya, oranges, pineapple, coconut, figs, tomatoes and corn. He tried to get them to eat seeds, but they refused to eat threm. He did mention they ate nuts from the trees in the upper canopy, but I didn’t ask what kind. When I asked if they ate any other vegetables, he said they didn’t really care for any but they did chew on tree branches, bark, flowers and leaves and he figured they got some nutritional needs met in that manner. In New Guinea, many flowers and plants are still used by the natives for their healing properties. I tend to wonder if the parrots he observed chewing on tree parts may have been using them for medicinal purposes.

In her article Ms. Page mentions a behavior reported in an article by Terry Greene titled “Antiparasitic Behavior in New Zealand Parakeets”. In the article the author mentioned “kakarikis (cyanoramphus) in the wild and in captivity have been seen using plant material in a way that suggests the activity has an antiparisitic function”. The plants mentioned are kanuka (Kunzia ericoides) and manuka (Leptospermum scoparium). She goes on to describe this chewing behavior in the same manner as my brother noticed in the birds he cared for or observed.

We have all heard about “natural” or homeopathic remedies or the use of these items as a preventative measure for many disorders. We’re also seeing more veterinarians going into the study or practice of using homeopathic treatments for our pets. There are new herbal combinations for treatment of a wide array of problems which affect some part of the human body. Most of us have used at least one of these, even if just in the form of an exotic tea to soothe our nerves. Many of us also use some form of these aids with our birds when trying to minimize their discomforts. One example of this would be the use of aloe in solutions to stop feather picking in our birds. Another use for aloe from our plants comes into play if we burn ourselves cooking or suffer from over-exposure to the sun.

If you look in the local pet store, pharmacy, department or health food store, you’ll see vast amounts of “natural” ways to treat everything from liver problems, failing memory, improving concentration, and purifying blood to building up your immune system. All of this makes me wonder if “anting” behavior isn’t our birds way of trying to tell us something about their medical condition or that they need these “natural” remedies in addition to the diets we provide. I know if we don’t have the tools to perform some natural act such as brushing or washing our hair, eventually it would seem we’d lose it or it would be damaged by the abuse. The other option is we would find a new way to cope with this dilemma.

Last week I spoke at great length to Rosemary from the Avian Medicine Chest. When I described the antipsychotic and antibiotic treatments previously used on Venus to decrease the feather plucking, I happened to mention the “anting” behavior I’d observed. I explained how I’d read small bits and pieces of information about “anting” and that it was believed the formic acid which is released by the birds crushing the ants and rubbing them on the feathers and skin may have worked as either a natural analgesic, or a means of removing or killing external parasites. I went on to describe “active” and “passive” anting behavior. After discussing these things, Rosemary said she believed the “anting” behavior or plucking may have been a futile way for Venus to deal with toxins in her system from all of the medications she had been given over the years. I thought about it……if we couldn’t keep our hair clean or bug free, would we remove it – like Venus and other pluckers have removed their feathers? Then I remembered kids in school who’d had all their hair shaved off in an attempt to get rid of head lice. In this light, plucking makes a lot of sense. After talking to Rosemary, I fully intend to use her remedies with my imported cockatoos and see if they will improve the plucking situation.

I’d read something similar to this in an article on anting. It mentioned that birds find the parasites irritating and during the scratching or grooming process where birds spread the acid from ants or other objects on the feathers and skin, it may detoxify the body. I fully intend to use her remedies with my imported cockatoos and see if Rosemary’s suggestions will improve the plucking behavior.

Maybe someday we’ll have all the answers when it comes to the medical treatment of our birds. Avian Research has come a long way in the last decade. I’d be interested in seeing more research on the act of anting in birds, parrots in particular. What little I found on the internet seems to indicate there hasn’t been a lot of direct investigation concerning possible reasons for anting behavior in birds and the possible anti-parasitic, or even mind altering euphoric effects formic acid may have on them.