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Chemoecology. 2008 Dec;18(4):197-203.

"Anting" in Blue Jays: evidence in support of a food-preparatory function.

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Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853 USA.


Anting, the plumage-dipping behavior to which ants (mostly formicines) are commonly subjected by birds (mostly passerines), is shown in tests with hand-raised Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) and the ant Formica exsectoides to be instinctive: the birds displayed typical renditions of the behavior on the first occasion that they encountered ants. Evidence is presented supportive of the view that anting is a strategy by which birds render ants fit for ingestion. Formicine ants are ordinarily protected by their formic acid-containing spray. Being wiped into the bird's plumage causes them to discharge that spray, without harm to the bird, to the point of almost total emptying of the glandular sac in which the secretion is stored. The ants are therefore essentially secretion-free by the time they are swallowed. Further evidence indicates that it is the ant's possession of the acid sac that triggers the anting behavior in the bird. If F. exsectoides are surgically deprived of their acid sac, they are eaten by the birds without first being subjected to anting. Data are also presented indicating that the ant's crop, which is especially capacious in formicines (its contents may amount to over 30% of the formicine's mass), and which appears to survive the anting procedure intact, constitutes, at least when laden, a valuable component of the trophic package that the bird accesses by anting.

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