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Why Do Ants Collect Feathers?

Have you ever seen ants carrying or dragging bird feathers?

Sometimes they even carry feathers that are much larger than themselves.

 

 

It also not unusual to see feathers on or in ant nests. See, for example, this cool photograph of a Pheidole oxyops nest with feathers from Flickr.

Seeing these made me curious. Why do ants collect feathers? Why do feathers end up around their nests?

It is very likely that different ant species may collect feathers for different reasons. A quick search of the Internet and books about ants offer some plausible suggestions.

1. To Obtain Moisture

Mark Moffett found Diacamma rugosum ants in India decorate their nests with feathers during the dry season. The feathers collect dew drops in the early mornings, which the ants can then drink and share with nestmates.

He also proposes that the dead ants spread around outside the nest might also serve for dew collection.

(Moffett, M.W., Adventures Among Ants, page 119 and Moffett, M.W. 1985. An Indian ant's novel method for obtaining water. National Geographic Research 1 (1), 146-149.)

2. To Obtain Food

James Trager rightly suggests on the Ant Blog that foraging workers carry feathers home because they (the feathers) may have small residues of bird tissue or fluids that the ants eat.

 

southern-fire-ants-scavenging-bird-feathers

Here are some Solenopsis xyloni workers stripping the remaining dried tissues from a clump of wing feathers of a dead bird.

3. Anting by Birds Leaves Feathers Behind

Another likely explanation for bird feathers around ant nests is that birds have been known to flop on ant nests or even pick ants up and rub the ants on their feathers. This behavior is known as "anting." It is thought that birds interact with ants, at least in part, to remove parasitic lice, ticks and and possibly microbes. It is likely that anting birds might leave feathers behind on the nests, particularly if the birds are molting.

This brings us back to the possibility of the ants collecting feathers for food, because at least some feathers may still harbor lice, mites, or small ticks if they fell off the bird recently.

Overall

I have witnessed Forelius ants pulling a feather into a nest entrance myself, but it doesn't seem very clear how frequently ants collect feathers. It might be a relatively rare phenomenon or it might be fairly common.

Have you ever seen ants collecting feathers? What about ant nest "decorated" with feathers? What do you think about it?

 

20 thoughts on “Why Do Ants Collect Feathers?

  1. Brian Barratt

    I have watched the behaviour or ants in cracks in the concrete of my drive for many years. During the past couple of weeks, they have been trying to take small feathers into their holes. At present, three feathers are standing upright and moving about while they try to move them. Brian Barratt, Melbourne, Australia.

  2. Brian Barratt

    Thanks for that link, Roberta. Anything produced by CSIRO is authoritative. Meanwhile, I keeping an eye on my feathers and cautioning visitors not to tread on them!

  3. Anne Hackett

    We've just watched a group of ants gradually move a small white feather -the downy sort from under the main feathers - into a hole along side a path where I assume there's an entrance to a nest. They started about 3 hours ago and watching closely I could see them manoeuvring it. Some were also nipping off the ends of the feather and going off down the hole. The sun has now gone down and there are no ants at the feather. It's just sticking out of a hole in the ground. First time I've seen this - probably because I don't know anything about ants! How fascinating!

  4. Karyn

    I found this page while searching for information on ant holes with feathers sticking out of them. I have found three such ant holes in our local nature strips recently and wondered what the ants are doing with the feathers. They are just your average tiny black ants the same as Brian noted. I am in West Gippsland Victoria. Has anyone here found out anything more about this strange phenomenon?

  5. Alan Leary

    We have many feathers in our paved back yard where I throw seed for the birds. There are also a lot of ant nest holes between the pavers. Each day I find a few feathers sticking out of the holes. Today quite a large one - about 12 cm - sticking out of a hole. The ants were busy, seemingly making the hole wider. I wish I had seem them getting the feather upright into the hole. And I thought building the pyramids was a wonder!

  6. Roberta

    Alan,

    Thanks for sharing your observations. I know it has been some time, but do you know what kind they are?

  7. John

    This may be too late for anyone to care as I see that the thread was started more than a year ago, but I've often noticed the same things reported by others--on daily walks in our neighborhood (in North Carolina, US), I see small black ants (pharaoh?) picking up feathers, often find feathers carried into sidewalk and driveway cracks which I assume contain entrances to nests. They seem particularly to like bluebird feathers of which I find many in the late summer, early fall, but any species will do. Have also found downy woodpecker and cardinal feathers in this position.

  8. Sameer

    Found this thread while making curious search to know the reason of such feather collection by ants. I am from India (western part). I too have seen such feathers standing upright at the entrance of holes.
    But my specific observation is that this activity starts with the onset of winter. Here in India, winter season is from last week of October till February. I have seen this mostly in November.

  9. Roberta

    Sameer,

    Interesting observation. I wonder whether the ants change their behavior, or whether there are more feathers around because birds are molting.

  10. Sameer

    Hey Roberta, What i had observed was kind of different and amazing thing. There were so many tiny holes and small cracks on the concrete flooring around the library building where i used to go for study. So during tea breaks it had become my favorite thing to observe rows of ants going in / out of holes (around 10-12 holes) in a particular corner. Inbound traffic used to be more than outbound one. In a week or two, one day, i found feathers stuck in some holes. Notably, there was very little to no movement from that hole as compared to previous day. Very few ants loitered around those holes. Whereas other holes had their regular traffic. In next few days days, few more holes got the feather and in a month, most of the rows disappeared. All i could see was few irregular groups.
    Hence what i concluded that feather may be a kind of flag to indicate this house/ colony is full with winter stock of food. One more thing is- not all but only particular holes had this flag. But movement of ants in that entire corner had stopped after this "flag hoisting".

    Description of ants:
    Wine red (dark shade) or mahogany colour. 3 to 4 mm in length. Few among them were bigger (approx. 6 mm). In a moving row, such biggies used to hustle through at infrequent interval.

  11. Sameer

    Hey Roberta, What i had observed was kind of different and amazing thing. There were so many tiny holes and small cracks on the concrete flooring around the library building where i used to go for study. So during tea breaks it had become my favorite thing to observe rows of ants going in / out of holes (around 10-12 holes) in a particular corner. Inbound traffic used to be more than outbound one. In a week or two, one day, i found feathers stuck in some holes. Notably, there was very little to no movement from that hole as compared to previous day. Very few ants loitered around those holes. Whereas other holes had their regular traffic. In next few days days, few more holes got the feather and in a month, most of the rows disappeared. All i could see was few irregular groups.
    Hence what i concluded that feather may be a kind of flag to indicate this house/ colony is full with winter stock of food. One more thing is- not all but only particular holes had this flag. But movement of ants in that entire corner had stopped after this "flag hoisting".

    Description of ants:
    Wine red (dark shade) or blackish mahogany colour. 3 to 4 mm in length. Few among them were bigger (approx. 6 mm). In a moving row, such biggies used to hustle through at infrequent interval.

  12. Roberta

    It's great that you found these ants to watch. Your observations raise a lot of questions. A good first step would be to identify the ant species, but I can't do much with your description. Could you take a good close up photograph (with a macro lens, if possible)? Or you might try to find someone who knows about ants in your area and take them a sample?

  13. Joyce

    I have seen Ants doing this real struggle with flight feathers 3 times this month, they did not seem interested in the smaller fluffier feathers, they put the shaft of the feather down into the hole, I am not sure what type of ants they were but they don't seem to be the vicious bitey type -- will see if I can find out what species.
    I am in NSW Australia

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