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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.



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.


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?


Remember that  Pogonomyrmex nest with the shiny black spots around the nest entrances from a few weeks back?



This one?

Upon revisiting a few weeks later, the ants are looking better.


They seem to have cleaned up nicely.


Maybe there are a few spots left, but nothing like before.


What are they harvesting today? You probably recognize the beetle elytra, but what is the gray cylinder?


You might need to be from Arizona to recognize it. That is part of a seed pod from a tree with the common name "screwbean mesquite."

Wonder what they will be up to next time I visit.

What kind of ants do you visit regularly?

While visiting a local park this week, I stopped by to visit a Pogonomyrmex nest I have been watching over the years.


I almost immediately noticed the black spots around the nest entrances.


Here's another entrance about 20 inches from the first two. There was a noticeable blackening around the hole in comparison to the surroundings. Otherwise, the ants seemed to be active and doing fine.


This is a closer view.


Looks kind of shiny.

My first thought was ant feces. Studies have shown that some ants mark their nest areas with feces, for example a study by Grasso et al. (2005).


My other guess is that someone tried pouring something into the nest (as it is a public place.)

What do you think? Have you seen this before?

Grasso, D. A., Sledge, M. F., LE Moli, F., Mori, A., and Turillazzi, S. 2005. Nest-area marking with faeces: a chemical
signature that allows colony-level recognition in seed harvesting ants (Hymenoptera, Formicidae). Insectes Sociaux 52:36–44. (.pdf available for viewing)


In a recent trip to western New York, I noticed a trend. Whenever I found an ant colony (flipping rocks looking for bait for a family member who likes to fish)...


an ant colony like these cornfield ants...


I found thief ants.




Take these Lasius.



Can you see the thief ants?


Let me give you clues. The thief ant is in the top right of first photo, near cluster of three larvae in second photo, and going into the tunnel just left of center in the last photograph.

Thief ants are named for their tendency to live with or near other ant colonies and then steal food from their "hosts."

They can also be found living in separate colonies.


Some of the thief ant colonies I found living by themselves were quite large.



Looks like quite a few new thief ants are on the way.

According to School of Ants, thief ants are distributed throughout the United States (although they don't show any records for New York State on the map). I had never noticed thief ants when I looked for ant colonies in that location in the past. I know my vision hasn't gotten any better, so that isn't it. It seems like thief ants have gotten a lot more numerous there.

Have you noticed more colonies of thief ants where you study ants? Do you think this a trend or a random happenstance?