“A very odd and violent dirt bath”
June 7, 2021 10:55 AM   Subscribe

I read about this in a book when I was a kid - I had no idea it was that rare to capture on camera!

However, I am commenting to note this eponysterical bit:

"The ant also becomes something to eat," said David Bird, an emeritus professor of wildlife biology with McGill University.
posted by Jeanne at 11:30 AM on June 7 [13 favorites]

I've seen birds taking sun baths (which are thought to kill feather mites) but never this. Birds contort themselves so they look like they have been run over when they are sun bathing.
posted by Bee'sWing at 11:41 AM on June 7 [2 favorites]

That second picture is extremely metal.

It seems very odd to me that we aren't willing to ascribe "because it feels good and they like it" as a motive to an animal we know can communicate, collaborate, plan ahead and make tools.
posted by mhoye at 11:56 AM on June 7 [16 favorites]

Sensing a threat, the ants shoot a spray of formic acid from their abdomens or anal glands

I sympathize, little ant....
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:58 AM on June 7 [4 favorites]

posted by clavdivs at 12:00 PM on June 7 [5 favorites]

So I took a look at the photo and immediately thought "Oh, the crow is taking a formic acid bath."

This is yet another time when I realized my zoology background has filled my head with stuff I think is normal everyday knowledge, but is not actually stuff other people tend to know. Hooray for animal behavior classes!
posted by caution live frogs at 12:04 PM on June 7 [13 favorites]

I'm just really, really happy the writer got "a murder of crows" into her copy.
posted by martin q blank at 12:30 PM on June 7 [5 favorites]

The late great Avram Davidson described similar behaviour in one of his Adventures in Unhistory, based on reports that birds would sometimes snatch burning twigs for "anting" themselves with. He suggested that this may have been the source for the myths about the phoenix, particularly if they managed to set their nests on fire.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:38 PM on June 7 [5 favorites]

I'm just really, really happy the writer got "a murder of crows" into her copy.
I liked that too, she just dropped it in like no big whoop. Whereas lots of other writers would have been tempted to make some parenthetical comment about it.
posted by Horkus at 12:49 PM on June 7

So I took a look at the photo and immediately thought

Likewise, though for me mostly a result of a childhood obsession with Zoobooks magazine. Growing up, I observed it pretty often in jays and mockingbirds. Hadn't had the same sort of opportunity to watch birds in a while until last summer, when I spent a lot of time in my parents' garden and saw that the mourning doves knew the trick. I wonder how many species invented it independently versus learning it from observation of species that practiced it? And did the tool users pick it up first or the ground nesters?
posted by notquitemaryann at 1:14 PM on June 7

I probably wouldn't even notice it's a specific thing until someone pointed it out. You spend enough time outdoors, you occasionally get covered in ants. Birds, I can relate.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:17 PM on June 7 [3 favorites]

posted by zamboni at 1:28 PM on June 7 [9 favorites]

Fascinating. Also, a really weird way for a bird to sit, or so it seems to me who knows nothing about birds. I'd have naively guessed it was an injured bird who landed in an unfortunate place full of ants. When that's happened to me, it was 'cause I chose to climb the wrong tree. But, the Hendricks and Norment paper suggests it's a real thing.

Metafilter continually reminds me that there exist unanswered, but seemingly easily answered questions in the world. Which is a good thing for people who like answering questions.
posted by eotvos at 1:34 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]

This might explain a mystery I encountered a couple years ago. One warm sunny day I noticed what seemed to be a dead adult crow lying near the edge of the street in front of my apartment. But when I took a closer look I saw that it was very much alive, just crouched down with its wings partly extended like in the linked article. I didn't get closer than 6 feet or so - I was concerned it could be, I dunno, rabid or something, and I didn't want it to attack me; plus I felt it would have been rude to invade its space any further. But even at that point it looked calm and alert, and not much bothered by my presence. I didn't notice any ants, but then I wasn't looking for them either.

I warned it to get out of the street so it didn't get run over, and said I hoped it was ok, and left it be. When I looked later it was gone. I'd wondered about it ever since; at least I've got closure now!
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:13 PM on June 7 [9 favorites]

The article mentions “self-stimulation” as a possible motive. Whuh? Am I being dense? (Probably)
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 2:21 PM on June 7

One of the things I learned during the pandemic quiet is that there are crows in my neighborhood. I'm guessing that their nest is a few blocks over, but they sometimes stop by my street.

I desperately want to be friends with them, mostly because they are delightful but also because I am hyped about becoming a menacing scraggly crone. The crows probably haven't noticed me but sometimes I worry that they have and that they can tell that I'm a little too desperate:

"Hey Marge, look. Down there. There's the woman I was telling you about."
"Woah. Is she...is she cawing at us? Jesus. That's just sad."

I currently have a little pile of unsalted peanuts and shiny things sitting on my windowsill, but so far, no takers. The closest I've come to attracting their attention was to get a bluejay to eat a cracker off of the same windowsill last year. I think I'll stick to peanuts rather than switching to ants, though.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 2:29 PM on June 7 [16 favorites]

"I currently have a little pile of unsalted peanuts and shiny things sitting on my windowsill, but so far, no takers."

I have discovered through trial and error that crows love unsalted air-popped popcorn. I have also discovered that they seem to be able to communicate over distances… or… something. After leaving popcorn for them for a few days, they now seem to know me and, when I walk to the area where I feed them, a crow will seemingly appear out of nowhere. After a minute or two, another couple crows will show up. They're not noticeably vocal or noisy. And then, crows start flying in from the distance and from every every direction. It is quite crazy and a mystery to me.
posted by bz at 3:39 PM on June 7 [5 favorites]

"David Bird" being the wildlife / bird dude in question reminds me of when I was doing my Statistics B.A. and there was a guy in my program whose first name was, I shit you not, "Random".
posted by cnidaria at 5:42 PM on June 7 [3 favorites]

Also, this anting behavior this is amazing and fascinating, thanks for sharing! I love all the creatures in Corvidae.
posted by cnidaria at 5:43 PM on June 7

So, they’re not completely sure of the caws?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:00 PM on June 7 [10 favorites]

Not yet, but they keep pecking away at the problem.
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:14 PM on June 7 [4 favorites]

Humans eat chillis and smoke tobacco, which is self-stimulation with natural insecticides. Maybe this is just the crow equivalent?
posted by davidwitteveen at 8:20 PM on June 7 [2 favorites]

Well I'm not an expert, but I think this would be crow meth.
posted by ryanrs at 8:28 PM on June 7

Like evidenceofabsence I have ambitions to become a menacing crone, and since the only corvids around my way are magpies I might try the popcorn and shiny objects method of attracting them.

The link between anting behaviour and the phoenix legend has been made before - there is an interesting paper on it here.
JSTOR apparently give independent researchers (or just nosy people like me) 100 free articles a month if you register with them.
posted by Fuchsoid at 8:50 PM on June 7 [3 favorites]

I live in Crow Central. There’s a big fat one who comes and sits on the opposite side of the window from my black cat, and they just sit and stare at each other.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:06 PM on June 7

I think this would be crow meth

Well, you know what they say - crow-meth the hour, crow-meth the bird.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:33 PM on June 7

bz, you are living my dream! I'll give the unsalted popcorn a shot.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 11:49 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]

Crow meth: not even once.
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 2:37 AM on June 8 [1 favorite]

I stare, confused, at persons wishing to engage and befriend corvids: You engage in the same folly as those who build faerie houses in hopes of attracting them.

These are old and strange beings. Their ways are not our ways; their wants are not your wants. Us ape-kin attract their attention at our peril: Trust not the crows, nor welcome them in your life.

Our elders loved them not, and neither do I. I don't want to invite the eyes of anything that might outsmart me on a good day. When we humans leave the earth, the Corvids will have time enough to play with our treasures and walk through the ruins of our cities.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 7:09 AM on June 8 [6 favorites]

I don't want to invite the eyes of anything that might outsmart me on a good day.
I desperately want to invite the eyes of everything that can outsmart me. I don't claim that's a good decision or will lead to a long and fulfilling life as a human.
posted by eotvos at 9:48 AM on June 8 [2 favorites]

anyone want to explain this corvid behaviour? I mean, better than "time to watch some cats fight for my amusement"
posted by elkevelvet at 4:09 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

OMG! There's probably some bluejay taking bets around the corner.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:04 PM on June 8

anyone want to explain this corvid behaviour? I mean, better than "time to watch some cats fight for my amusement"

I would guess the nest is nearby. During mating season or whatever, birds get insanely territorial, and fight other birds and other animals like squirrels regularly.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:56 AM on June 9

That bird wasn't fighting, it was goading. That looked like pure troll behavior to me.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:19 AM on June 9 [2 favorites]

I guess it’spossible that the crow figured if the cats were fighting each other they would leave the nest alone. Or, since they mostly seemed to be Pushing the black cat the majority of the time, maybe it was a matter of they just wanted the black cat to move and the orange cat just happened to be there.

(Of course, in my twisted little heart I really do want to believe that they just wanted to watch a catfight. )
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:00 PM on June 9

That's a great shot. Maybe it just feels good for them? Would be curious to know the real reason for it, if they ever discover it. Sometimes, I think, they do these things just for pleasure, no real deeper meaning. Like when monkeys lick poisonous frogs to go on trips.
posted by DavidC83 at 11:02 AM on June 14

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