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An Addiction Strictly for the Birds

Ravens, magpies and other songbirds may be hooked on the ecstasy-inducing stimulation of "anting," scientists theorize.

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By Bryan Le

10/05/12

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Ants: crawling all over your body. It sounds like a less-than-recreational side effect of a drug. But for some feathered "addicts," the stimulation it may provide could be the whole point. Birds' well-documented love of letting ants crawl all over them—or even slathering chewed up mouthfuls of ants onto their bodies—is called “anting, reports NPR. It's particularly popular among smarter birds like ravens and magpies. Scientist Y.C. Wee divides it into two categories: "active anting," when you pick up ants in your beak and place them on to you, and "passive anting," which involves simply lying down on an ants' nest and seeing what happens. It's not certain why birds do it. Scientists theorize, firstly, that ants transfer chemicals that repel other insects and fungi. But it may also just feel good. One British scientist assessed that "the purpose of anting is the stimulation and the soothing of the body... similar to that gained by humanity from the use of external stimulants, soothing ointments, counter-irritants (including formic acid) and perhaps also smoking." But as with human self-medication, some bird-brains let their anting progress to a point where "it has no biological purpose but is indulged in for its own stake, for the feeling of well-being and ecstasy it induces."

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