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Q: My wife and I watched a blackbird pick up a millipede, spin it around, and rub it through its feathers and under its wings and tail. After 10 minutes, the bird dropped the millipede without harming it and flew away. Why did the bird do this?
This fascinating bird behavior is called “anting.” Different species of passerine birds have been observed picking up ants — singly or in groups — and rubbing them on their feathers. Less commonly, birds are seen spreading their wings over an anthill to encourage the insects to swarm over their bodies. This behavior also occurs with millipedes, as you noted.
Why birds do this is not well understood. A common and plausible assumption is to acquire an ant’s defensive secretions, which are known to hinder fungus, bacteria, mites, and other insects. Millipedes also have evolved potent defensive secretions to ward off their enemies.
However, in 2008 researchers tested a theory that this curious behavior may make ants more palatable. For example, ants in the subfamily Formicinae produce formic acid as a defense mechanism when threatened. By rubbing the ants over their feathers, birds can induce the ants to emit the bitter-tasting acid, leaving them tastier to eat. The researchers discovered when the ants’ acid-producing glands were removed, blue jays eagerly snapped the insects up without any anting behavior beforehand. But the jays engaged in the behavior when formic acid was present.
Anting episodes are commonly seen in late summer and early fall, when birds are likely to be molting — leading some researchers to also wonder if birds find the ants soothing to their skin.
For more on this topic, visit feederwatch.org/blog/anting-blue-jays-taking-a-bath-or-preparing-dinner.
Q: What is it?
This is a solitary sandpiper. This medium-sized shorebird migrates from southern Mexico and the Caribbean through Missouri to its breeding range in Canada. These birds can trickle in starting in April through the end of May, and for a longer period in the fall between mid-July and September. They’re rarely seen using mudflats alongside other migrating shorebirds, but they will set down on almost any puddle available. They also will stop at lakes, ponds, streams, and other waterbodies with muddy margins.
Solitary sandpipers resemble other species of shorebird, so here are a few identifying characteristics to look for:
- They bob their heads constantly as they walk.
- The white eye ring is slightly more prominent than in other species.
- Wings and back are dark brown with small white spots, and legs are olive colored.
They are the only North American sandpiper species that doesn’t lay its eggs on the ground. Rather, they recycle the nests of different tree-nesting songbirds. For more information, visit allaboutbirds.org/guide/Solitary_Sandpiper.
This Issue's Staff
Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Associate Editor - Larry Archer
Photography Editor - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Designer - Shawn Carey
Designer - Marci Porter
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Circulation - Laura Scheuler