Mad About Berries

Do Birds Eat Ants?

Birds exhibit a diverse range of diets, varying from seeds and fruits to insects and other small animals. A notable part of their diet includes ants, which are consumed by a variety of bird species worldwide.

Yes, many birds do eat ants. Ants can be a part of the diet of a variety of bird species.

Published: July 13, 2023.

One prominent example is the antbirds, a large family of smallish birds in subtropical and tropical Central and South America. As their name suggests, many antbirds specialize in feeding on ants.


Other bird species, like starlings, sparrows, or flickers, also consume ants along with a variety of other foods.

What North American Birds Eat Ants?

Several bird species native to North America are known to eat ants. Some of them include:

  • Northern Flickers: These woodpeckers are ground feeders and a large part of their diet consists of ants and beetles.
  • Pileated Woodpeckers: These are the largest woodpeckers found in North America (aside from the possibly extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker), and they are known to eat carpenter ants among other insects.
  • American Robins: While they are famous for pulling earthworms out of the ground, robins also eat a large number of insects, including ants.
  • Wild Turkeys: These large birds are omnivores and ants make up part of their diet.
  • Blue Jays: They are known to eat a wide range of insects, including ants.

blue jay

  • Eastern Bluebirds: These small birds eat a variety of insects, spiders, and other invertebrates, including ants.
  • Starlings: While not native, starlings are now one of the most common birds in North America, and they are known to eat a large number of insects, including ants.

Also, the consumption of ants is influenced by factors such as the bird's life stage, the season, and the availability of other food sources.

ant on leaf

What is "Anting"?

"Anting" is a peculiar and fascinating behavior observed in many bird species, including but not limited to crows, jays, starlings, and others.

The term refers to the act of a bird intentionally allowing ants to crawl over its body and feathers or even actively picking up ants and rubbing them into their feathers.

Observations of this behavior have piqued the curiosity of bird watchers and scientists alike for decades.

The exact reasons for anting remain a subject of debate among ornithologists, but one of the widely accepted theories is that birds use ants as a form of ectoparasite control.

Many ants produce formic acid, a substance known to be harmful to many types of small parasites, such as mites and lice. By allowing ants to roam their bodies or rubbing ants onto their feathers, birds might be utilizing formic acid to keep these parasites at bay.

Another possible explanation for anting could be related to the bird's molting process. Formic acid might help ease the irritation and discomfort caused by new feathers growing in.

Some have also proposed that anting may simply be a bird's way of preparing ants, or other insects, for consumption by neutralizing their chemical defenses, although this theory remains less substantiated.

Despite the prevalence of anting behavior across a broad spectrum of bird species, the specifics of the behavior can vary. Some birds prefer to use crushed ants, while others opt for live ones.

Some species have even been seen to use other insects, snails, or even certain types of plants in a similar manner. The exact methodologies and preferred "anting tools" can depend on the individual bird, the species, and what is locally available.

Although our understanding of anting has greatly improved over the years, there is still much to learn about this fascinating behavior.

black garden ant

Few Final Words

Birds and ants share a dynamic relationship that manifests not only in the form of a predator-prey relationship but also through unique behavioral interactions like "anting."

From the tropical antbirds of Central and South America to the common robins and woodpeckers of North America, ants form a part of the diet for a multitude of bird species worldwide. These tiny creatures serve as a substantial source of protein and nutrients for birds.

The intriguing act of "anting", where birds allow ants to crawl over their bodies or intentionally rub them into their feathers, serves to underline the multifaceted relationships birds have with ants.

While the exact reasons for this behavior are still being studied, the most widely accepted theories suggest that the formic acid produced by many ants might help birds control parasites or ease the discomfort of molting.

Whether it's their dietary preferences or their peculiar behaviors, the interactions between birds and ants offer a compelling window into the complexity of nature.

They serve as a reminder of the intricate web of relationships that exist among different species in our ecosystems, each playing a role in maintaining the delicate balance of nature.

As we continue to study these interactions, we undoubtedly deepen our understanding of the fascinating world of avian life.

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