Archived Mountain Voices

The curious habits of birds

The curious lifestyles and distinctive habits one can observe in the bird world are continually fascinating.

Some things you can count on to occur with regularity. Each year, in late spring or early summer, blue jays will gather into communal flocks that scour the woodlands seeking and devouring bird eggs and young birds. They go about this grim task systematically, decimating a chosen watershed one day before moving over to the adjacent one the following day.

For years I’ve tried to discourage these ravaging hordes when they pillage lower Lands Creek in Swain County, where we live. I’ve even resorted to firing shotgun blast after shotgun blast in their general direction, not actually aiming at them. But they simply squawk, move a bit out of range, and continue what seems to be their appointed task. Indeed, I wonder, is this ravaging a necessary part of natural order, a way of “thinning the herd,” so to speak? If so, I still don’t like it a bit.

Each fall one can count on pairs of pileated woodpeckers to go through a mock mating ritual. The male flies about the woodlands hammering and calling to the female, who responds in kind. On one level, they’re probably just re-establishing territorial boundary lines for the coming breeding season. But the rituals seemingly go beyond this. Since pileated woodpeckers mate for life, it’s also likely that the males and females are renewing their relationship for the coming year — sort of like making your wedding vows on an annual basis. Such pair bonding is not at all uncommon in the natural world.

One of the most unusual instances of bird behavior that I’ve observed was seeing a brown thrasher deliberately alight on an anthill and proceed to rub ant after ant all over the underside of its body. I was jogging along a sandy stretch of road when I saw the thrasher alight on the anthill; he was still there when I jogged away 10 minutes later.

I subsequently learned that ornithologists refer to this ritual as anting. They’re not quite sure just what the songbirds that utilize it are up to. The entry on “anting” in The Birder’s Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds (1988) notes that “the most reasonable assumption seems to be that it is a way of acquiring defensive secretions of ants, primarily for their insecticidal, miticidal, fungicidal, or bactericidal properties and perhaps secondarily, as a supplement to the bird’s own preen oil.”

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That seems to be a fancy way of saying that ants help birds ward off insects and body diseases. It’s probable that the formic acid emitted by the disturbed ants helps free the bird of feather and skin parasites.

In addition to grabbing the ants with their bills and applying the insects directly to their bodies, birds will sometimes simply nestle down into an anthill and allow the critters to crawl over them freely. If a bird can stand it, this is no doubt the most effective way of tidying up. Just writing about it makes my skin crawl.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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