Photographer Tony Austin was at the tail-end of a 3-hour nature walk recently when a murder of crows landed nearby. When one of the crows started “acting strangely,” Austin began photographing it.
“It would sort of flap its wings on the ground and then hop into the air and disappear into the foliage on the side of the gravel road, and then hop back onto the gravel,” Austin tells NPR. “And I couldn’t understand what it was doing.
“Only the one was taking this dirt bath, which I thought was quite interesting. The others were walking around looking at it. They were certainly quite interested in what was going on, but they didn’t seem alarmed.”
When Austin reviewed the photos on his large computer monitor at home, he was surprised to discover that the crow had ants crawling all over its body — it had been taking an ant bath. He then shared the photo on Facebook, and some bird photographers helped put a name to the behavior: anting.
Anting is a maintenance tactic birds use in which they intentionally invite ants or other insects onto their feathers and skin. Oftentimes the bird will lie down in a location covered with the insects and do certain poses while the bugs are swarming its body. This is called passive anting, and this is what Austin observed and photographed.
While there are documented observations of anting behavior, scientists still aren’t exactly sure why birds engage in it. Theories include the birds getting rid of parasites, grooming their feathers, preparing the insects for consumption, taking pleasure in the sensations, and stimulating feather growth for molting.
Austin, a Victoria, British Columbia-based photographer who is relatively new to nature and wildlife photography, feels fortunate to have witnessed and captured this relatively rare sight.
“It’s kind of like a treasure hunt,” Austin tells CBC. “You always hope for a shot like that, but it doesn’t come around too often.”
Image credits: Photographs by Tony Austin and used with permission