Anting turkeys

Type that phrase (“anting turkeys”) into google and you’re likely to get “did you mean hunting turkeys?”  No, of course not, I meant exactly what I typed — are wild turkeys one of the birds that use anting behavior to cleanse themselves of parasites?  And yes, they are. (Read more about this behavior in Bird Watching Daily.

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Great Tit anting behavior (observed last May 216 in Wales) is typical of what birds do to rid themselves of eternal parasites.

Over 200 bird species have been observed to search out areas where ants are likely to be found, immerse themselves in the dirt and dust there, and fluff their feathers as if they were bathing.  With a big bird like a turkey, it’s quite a show.

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Five Wild Turkeys immersed themselves in pine needle fluff and dirt. Apparently this is a favorite place to go “ant”, because there were numerous turkey-shaped scrapes in the hillside.

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Scrape the dirt, fluff feathers, and wiggle around until a good layer of litter and dirt works its way into those feathers.

And the reason for this behavior — ants release formic acid as a deterrent to being disturbed or threatened, and formic acid turns out to be a relatively good miticide (i.e., insecticide for mites).

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Crouched down in the litter, the first thing turkeys did was scrape the dirt vigorously with their bill. Was that to agitate the ants and get them moving?

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Get those legs into the actions as well, and stir up the litter and dirt behind and beneath them, while rustling feathers.

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Rolling around, making sure head and neck get immersed in the ant-laden dirt and litter.

“But that’s not the end of the story.  The ants having released their toxic chemical are now fair game to be eaten, and provide some nutrition if a bird eats enough of them. So, as the bird preens its feathers after its ant dust bath, it can safely consume any stray ants it comes across — sort of like a dessert menu item. And this was quite nicely proven in an experiment by two Cornell biologists (in 2009) who observed that Blue Jays ate 90% of the ants that had been relieved of their formic acid, but engaged in anting behavior instead with ants that were intact (containing their sacs of formic acid).” (Backyard Biology, May 5, 2016)

6 thoughts on “Anting turkeys

  1. I had no idea turkeys did this. I’m familiar with anting, because yellow-shafted flickers do it regularly. They will even hold an ant in their beak and “comb” it through their feathers. Such an odd behavior. Even though we know why they do it, one wonders how they learned. And your photos of the turkeys anting like things possessed are great! Wish I could stop by more often, but my time isn’t my own anymore. This one was too good to miss, though. Thanks for sharing today.

    • Aw, thanks. Personally, I think YOU are an inspiration, with all the stunning and interesting photos you take. Obviously, we are two women who are not ready for the rocking chair! And even though I don’t have much time for blog reading and commenting these days, I always, ALWAYS stop to admire your photos when they appear in my Inbox. You’ve really gone some lovely places, and seen some amazing animals. (I’ve gone from my bedroom to the computer, and the only animals I see are my two dachshunds and my four cats. Okay, I do have birds and a few snakes in my yard, but you get my drift.)

      Have a great day! 🙂

  2. I’ve watched the house sparrows roll in the dust at the edge of my garden many times. I assumed they were trying to rid themselves of mites, but didn’t know they needed ants to do it. And there are a lot of ants in my yard.

    • Yes, those ants certainly prove useful. You would think it would tickle to have them crawling around through the feathers, but some birds actually pick up the ants and place them in their feathers, and then bite the ants to get them to release their formic acid defense spray.

  3. I have heard of birds “anting”, but your photos are really great illustrations of this amazing behaviour. Some species of birds in our garden regularly sun themselves, I must watch out for any anting behaviour too. Thanks for this interesting post.

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