Photographer Tony Austin knew he was lucky when a raven killer landed near him on a recent nature walk. But then one of the birds started behaving very strangely. Austin started firing – and was amazed later when he enlarged his pictures: A crow had large black ants all over its body.
“I’ve noticed that all this bird swims like little bumps,” says Austin. “And it was certainly covered in ants.”
Even stranger, the raven seemed to be purposefully putting on ants. Austin was confused; now he was puzzled. Seeking help in solving his mystery, he posted a photo of the raven on a Facebook group for wildlife photographers in his hometown of Victoria, British Columbia.
Caught in the ant’s ant
In response to Austin’s post, the answer soon came: the raven was just “anthills,” spreading ants on its feathers and wings. The practice has long been documented, but not fully understood.
The leading theory is that everything has to do with purity.
“Ants have protective secretions, chemical weapons that they use to fight other insects and fungi, so if you smudge what they have on your feathers, steal their fungicides, miticides, insecticides and biocides,” as Robert Krulvich told NPR.
Another theory suggests that birds can use ants as bird aftershaves, leaving their skin colored and soothed after losing their feathers by moulting.
“No one seems to know why he’s doing what’s quite mysterious,” Austin says, “but it’s also exciting.”
Because Austin uses a long camera lens from just 40 feet away, his photos captured the scene in great detail. He posted the photo on the websites of several photographers – and within 10 or 15 minutes “literally went crazy” because people liked and shared the image.
“God’s gift,” almost missed
Austin almost missed his chance to see an ant up close. When he saw the crows, he was returning to his car after a fruitless three-hour walk through the natural sanctuary of Christmas Hill on Swan Lake. The killing of crows was on the left and too far to be seen. But that soon changed.
“I kept going and everyone suddenly flew over and landed on a gravel path about 40 feet away from me, which was really a godsend,” Austin said.
And then the ants began.
“Somehow he would flap his wings on the ground and then jump in the air and disappear into the greenery on the side of the gravel road, and then jump back on the gravel. And I couldn’t figure out what he was doing.”
Only one of the crows was ant, says Austin. At first he suspected that the bird might be in trouble, as it might have landed in an anthill by mistake. But while his fellow crows seemed curious about the show, they showed no signs of concern.
The murder is problem-free
“You often don’t see crows that close. Everyone was showing off,” Austin said.
“Only this one was taking this dirty bathtub, which I found quite interesting. The others were walking around and watching her. They were certainly quite interested in what was happening, but they didn’t seem worried. For a smart bird, if another bird is in trouble, I think that they tend to show that they are quite upset. But these boys were not worried at all. “
Anting has been observed in a wide range of birds. But crows, as some say, have a certain set of skills. They amaze people by remembering human faces, for example. They use tools and their social customs, including conducting funerals.
When told that park ravens can remember him because they can remember human faces, Austin laughed when he said, “Oh, is that so? I hope they’re not upset by the cover they get.”