Tony Austin has been fascinated by photography since he was given an Instamatic 126 in 1963. But nothing could have prepared him for what happened at the end of a recent nature walk. Austin was about to leave, having seen nothing of note, when a crow murder landed in his path. His decision to lie down and photograph them would pay off handsomely, as he captured a rare sight—a crow taking an ant bath.
That’s right, the crow was anting, or laying on an anthill and letting the insects swarm up its feathers. Many bird species engage in anting, which is when a bird sits on a tree branch and places one of its wings on the ground to allow one ant at a time to climb onto its feathers. This is referred to as active anting. What Austin captured is even more unusual. In this case, the crow positioned itself on top of an anthill to allow a large number of ants to swarm it at the same time. The crow would shake its head every now and then to keep the ants away from its beak and head.
This is known as passive anting, and it is more commonly observed in robins and ravens. Unfortunately, scientists are still baffled as to why birds engage in anting.
Austin didn’t realize what he was witnessing until he got home because the behavior was so unusual. “One of the birds appeared to be taking a dust bath, but it appeared to be a little more frantic than usual, with its wings splayed out on the gravel,” Austin tells My Modern Met. “The crow would fly into the air, land in the brush next to the path, and then leap back onto the dirt path.” Its behavior was unusual, and I suspected it was in distress, but none of the other crows seemed concerned, and after a minute or two, they all took flight and landed in some trees.
Because it was a bit of a gray day and this was a black bird on a white background (path), I couldn’t see the ants on the bird until I got home and started editing the photos. I was stunned when I saw the ant-covered crow and assumed that the crow had made a bad decision by landing on an anthill!”
It wasn’t until he uploaded the photos to Facebook that he realized the scope of what he’d captured. A reporter from CBC Vancouver, Cathy Kearney, contacted him and wrote an article about anting. Austin realized what he had on his hands when the images began to circulate around the world.
The photos’ success has come as a pleasant surprise to Austin. “I’ve spent my entire life taking photographs, and it’s always been my passion,” Austin explains. “As a photographer, you always hope that your photos are seen and appreciated by others.” For me, the point of photography is to be seen. So it’s a huge relief to be able to share this image of a rarely seen and even less understood behavior with so many others. I also owe a great debt of gratitude to that crow and his ant companions for providing me with an experience I will never forget.”
Photographer Tony Austin was on a nature walk when he saw a crow swarmed by ants.
It turns out that he’d photographed a little-seen behavior known as anting.
Tony Austin: Website | Facebook | Instagram
Alan OBrien says
Maybe to let them eat lice or fleas ?
alan land says
Veeeeeery interesting !
Nancy L Hope says
I bet the ants go and chomp up any parasites and their eggs.
Anna-Liisa Åstrand says
I have an anthill in.my garden in Stockholm. I have seen blackbirds bathing in it. They lie on the top of it. I think they do this to get rid of vermin in their feathers. I use to say that I have both restaurang and SPA for birds in my garden. Greetings Anna-Liisa
Nanette Leclerc says
I’m just guessing, but maybe the crow is allowing the ants to remove/eat some type of parasite. Then perhaps, the crow eats it’s guests (ants).
I could halfway see their original concept of letting one ant at a time crawl up their wing. This way they have some control over the ants.
However, unless it was an act of desperation because the parasitic activity on the crow was so overwhelming & unbearable, it resorted to allowing the ants to crawl all over its body at once to consume the aggressive parasites. Of course, that would have to be “out-of-your-mind” desperation. Other than that, I’’m pretty lost on this.
Just a thought.
Ray Johnson says
So do the crows eat the ants?
Silook Susie says
Ravens are so intelligent, as are most birds. This is an amazing capture! Sort of like using leeches to remove infection, but preventative, seemingly.
I suspect that birds have found that if they are infested with too many parasites, like lice or maybe even a fungus, the ants will swarm it and eat the offending parasites. But they need to cover their eyes and other sensitive parts.
Barbara Dell Eller says
Maybe they do that so the ants will eat parisites or smaller insects on the crows?
Edward M Bergman says
Do ants rid a bird of lice?
Marie moo says
My cat used to lay on ants nest in the summer. In the late 70s ..I always thought it was using them as an insecticide.
Lervan Jones says
And why was only one bird doing that? Maybe it had an lnfestation of fleas or some other nuisance!