The Umwelt of Anting

Recently a rare picture of a crow in a strange spread out and prone position was snapped in the Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary in Victoria, British Columbia by nature photographer Tony Austin.

Austin described the moment as “a very odd and violent dirt bath.” But only later when looking at the photo did he notice that the bird was covered in ants. Mystified, he showed the image to a group of birders and the act was described as the rarely seen but known “anting.” Anting? I hadn’t ever heard of this until just a few days ago but the experts say that anting is the puzzling behavior where birds let insects, usually ants, run on their feathers and skin.

Sometimes the birds will lay on an anthill and patiently let themselves get covered and other times the birds will pick the ants up with their beaks and rub the insects on themselves. But the reasons for the behaviour have been confounding experts since it was first observed in the 1830s when James Audubon noticed turkeys doing it. But the act has been registered in more than 200 species of birds. One theory is that the ants soothe irritated skin during heavy feather molting. Another is that the ants, or the formic acid they spray when irritated controls parasites in the feathers or somehow becomes an insecticide.

A 2015 study published in the Northwestern Naturalist journal looked at several possible functions for the behaviour based on observational research going all the way back to 1935. The research didn’t come to any definitive conclusions but one curious theory posited that crows were anting for “self-stimulation.”

“There is the possibility that anting serves more than one purpose whose expression depends on the individual bird and context of the anting activity,” wrote the authors.

An old and not very funny joke goes like this…A bird, a monkey, a penguin, an elephant, a fish, a seal and a dog stand in front of a human interviewer in the middle of the African savannah. The man says in his haughty RP English while taking off his monocle and adjusting his pith helmet: “Animals, I have one extra seat on my flight out of Nairobi this evening. I’m going to save only one animal from this execrable hole known to you as “The Savannah.” But, animals, I want to be fair to all of you and give you a test. The same test – to be fair. And whichever one of you who can pass the exam to which I submit to you will be mercilessly free soon enough. Your test: please climb that tree.”

The core of the “joke” lies in the fact that the monkey is the unique animal among that group that could climb the tree and pass the exam. Although who would want to hang out with that guy? Awful. Regardless this is an example of the devastating error committed in animal research when considering what the tested or observed species is able to do. Or desires to do. It is profoundly anthropocentric. It happens all the time.

The way that humans usually speak about animals is usually laced through, thoroughly, with anthropomorphism (Bambification) or functional reductionism (instinct alone).

The tradition dates back to the nineteenth century. The study of animals other than humans was so imbued with anthropomorphism that the nomenclature used for animals’ physiology was based on how humans perceived the stimuli with their own sensorial system, despite essential differences between the animals and the humans in this respect. This ended up convoluting our understanding of other animals and led some authors to stand up for a different approach to objective science, urging researchers to refer to species-specific characteristics as well as to each species’ own evolutionary pathway without necessarily referring to humans as an ideal model. Within this period, Jakob Von Uexküll coined the concept of “Umwelt,” which paradoxically supported achieving objectivity through the study of subjectivity. Though it is a hard thing to do Umweltian approaches require one to consider the senses of the animal and how they would perceive the world. A tick, for example, is attuned to temperature. Exquisitely so. Though it has eyes, it doesn’t see with them like vertebrates do. Certainly not like we do. So what does “seeing” seem like for a tick? Uexküll wrote “the world for a Jacobean oyster, for example, is just movement. And the world for a bright jellyfish, is just electricity”

A pessimistic and relativistic approach would conclude that we could never get to know other Umwelten different from ours. However, there are tools to investigate this information. For example, researchers Kano and Tomonaga explored how humans and chimpanzees looked at pictures differently using eye-tracker technology. There are many more examples.

So we creativity might need to be employed to wonder about the any umwelt, but in this case the perceptual experience, of the crow covered in ants.

The scientists wrote “There is the possibility that anting serves more than one purpose whose expression depends on the individual bird and context of the anting activity.” A few weeks ago I saved a baby sparrow and when I was stroking the tiny feathered head of the creature there was a spot on head that wanted to be touched and a spot that really didn’t want to be touched. And I watched and listened as the sweet little bird undulated their little neck to make sure that I stayed on the spot. Just as sure as any cat or dog who does just the same.

So here is my guess. Maybe the ants give some kind of antiparasitic spritz? I don’t know. But I’m betting that if you are a crow that knows well the feel of wind rushing around every stemmed rachis and vane and the thousands of eddies through the afterfeather, barbs and downy barbs, where the very sense of flight certainly is felt in their hollow bones. And if that steady and smooth sense is the one you are at home with I would reckon that ants on your skin might feel like scratches or even tickles.

Could it be that one of the bending purposes of this expression is, as Gibran says, “be for gladness”?

I don’t know and I don’t know that I ever will know but considering the umwelt it seems possible. But considering the mystery, rather than trying to split it allows for a kind of loving the world to enter it rather than solely the dry utilitarian linear purpose.

Such a kind of wondering matters in the world, I think, that humans aren’t at the center and that loving the world doesn’t have to look like the way that we love the world.

What a thing. May it be that this little venture stays as a portal for you to wonder about the living and well loved world.

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