Anting Behaviour Observed In Crows

Carrion crow Pepper

Our routine aviary cleaning procedures also involve the cleaning of drinking and bathing facilities of our crows. This is usually seen with great anticipation by all our corvids. Birds in general, but in particular corvids, are very clean birds, and can’t wait to make use of a refreshing bath. We frequently add natural apple cider vinegar to bath and drinking water, which keeps the water longer fresh and has positive health properties for the birds.

The video shows carrion crow Emma taking advantage of a bath in natural apple cider vinegar, before we have been actually able to add drinking water to dilute the vinegar further. This behaviour can be seen as the equivalent to or a variation of anting, frequently observed in the wild.

Anting can take on different forms. Some birds will pick up ants in their beaks and rub them over their feathers, while others will open their wings, lie down and allow ants to penetrate their plumage. Birds seem to prefer using ants that produce formic acid. Formic acid is being used by ants as a defense mechanism.

One theory on anting is that the formic acid could act as a fungicide, bactericide and insect repellent, while others think that it is the vitamin D content in the acid that birds are interested in. However, birds sometimes use alternative anting tools, such as millipedes and fruit, and in our case apple cider vinegar. Some scientists believe that anting is used to preen feathers and helps to prevent the drying out of the plumage. Another suggestion is that anting has an intoxicating effect on birds, as some birds have been seen to shake themselves and seemingly lose control over their ability to walk.

Carrion Crow Emma Anting

A Close Up Encounter Of Animal Awareness

Carrion crow Boing Boing at his arrival.

This short story of carrion crow Boing Boing’s first encounter with another crow unknown to him, whist being introduced into our communal aviary, nicely illustrates what animal consciousness or awareness is about. Animal consciousness is the state of self-awareness within an animal, or of being aware of an external object or something within itself.

Carrion Crow Boing Boing

Boing Boing is a now six year old male carrion crow, who came into our care four years ago, when he started to cause behavioural problems to his previous carers. Boing Boing has been hand raised after he has been found orphaned as a youngster, also being at the time in a very poor condition. He is not releasable and a permanent resident, as he is suffering of a scissor beak, which makes it impossible for him to survive in the wild. Boing Boing would not be able to eat carrion, as his beak disorder will not allow him to tear his food into manageable pieces. We took over his care at the time carrion crows usually mature, and when they commonly show behavioural issues, in particular when held in captivity without companions, adequate housing and mental as well as physical stimulation.

Carrion crow Chili
Carrion crow Chili

Carrion Crow Chili

Chili is a young dominant male carrion crow, who has been found together with his sister Pepper after becoming orphans following the destruction of their nest during a storm. Another sibling died during this accident, but Chili and Pepper luckily survived, despite suffering of starvation, injuries and infections. Due to Chili’s personality being characterised by a strong will and determination, he grew up quickly and took on the vacant position of the territory holder. His sister Pepper is rather the opposite of Chili, having had considerable problems with her legs caused by calcium deficiencies. She is very gentle and shy, but also very observant and clever.

Animal Consciousness And Awareness

When we introduced Boing Boing into the communal aviary, Chili immediately came, which was not unexpected, to greet the new arrival. Boing Boing announced himself with a cawing display usually used by dominant birds or territory holders when arriving at the communal roost. During this display head and neck are held forward whilst neck and belly feathers are raised. Wings are usually closed and the tail is fanned out slightly. Whilst cawing, the head will be slowly lowered until the beak is touching the belly, and at the same time the nictitating membrane is drawn across the eye. Then the head will be moved up again back into the normal position, and the display begins again. Chili replied to this demonstration by immediately sleeking down his feathers to appear smaller and less aggressive, meaning that both birds have, without any aggression or even fight, just addressed and clarified their position in their crow society.

Carrion crow Boing Boing sitting on a perch in our communal aviary.
Carrion crow Boing Boing

But this was not the end of Boing Boing’s and Chili’s first encounter and communication. Both birds sat silently on the perch next to each other for more than a minute. Boing Boing was intensely looking around taking all the new information in, whilst Chili seemed unable to take his gaze of Boing Boing’s beak. Eventually Chili made his move by approaching Boing Boing and by gently and carefully examining Boing Boing’s beak by using his own. Boing Boing didn’t move, he did not even twitch. He allowed Chili to examen his beak. After another minute Chili stopped his assessment, now obviously having satisfied his curiosity, and then he eventually moved away from Boing Boing and flew off to continue with his usual business.

How To Successfully Rehabilitate A Wild Raven

Raven Zarathustra in her release aviary.

Zarathustra is an adult female raven, who we have rescued after being found unable to fly. The admission assessment showed an extensive bruise along the proximal end of radius and ulna of the left wing, but luckily no fractures have been found. We could only assume that she must have suffered some sort of impact trauma, most likely caused by a collision with a car. Otherwise Zarathustra showed no other signs of disease and was in a pristine condition.

Part of the usual treatment and rehabilitation programme is passive physiotherapy and controlled gradually increasing active exercise. Fractures, but also soft tissue injuries can cause secondary problems in birds like joint stiffness and contraction of ligaments and tendons, potentially rendering a bird permanently unable to fly and making him or her not releasable. Not unexpected, as in any sentient being, pain is an alarm bell which will dictate how extensive an injured body part will be actively used by the animal who has been inured. That also means that a bird will naturally not use the injured wing, or only to a certain degree, unless he or she is encouraged to do so. This is a well working mechanism, but to achieve best results early careful passive physiotherapy together with appropriate pain relief is often needed to avoid the complications mentioned above.

Female raven Zarathustra undergoing her admission assessment.
Raven Zarathustra

Depending on the birds compliance, personality and individual character there are basically two different ways of rehabilitating a bird by using passive and gradually increasing active physiotherapy. Unlike old fashioned rehabilitation approaches, which are still be taught at animal care courses, we do not avoid interacting with our patients. In fact, we heavily rely on a close bond based on trust, which helps us to achieve best results. The concrete treatment approach always depends on an individual assessment of the animal concerned. In rare cases it might be necessary though, to constrain the animal for the time needed to assess injuries, or to do physiotherapeutic exercises. This procedure is usually stressful, despite precautions being taken to minimise the impact on the bird.

Trust Is The Key Ingredient For A Successful Treatment

Over many years of working with corvids we have learned that in most cases a trust based relationship can be created, to allow even the physical contact needed to perform physiotherapeutic exercises. There is no risk of permanently imprinting or taming a bird, as this relationship is built out of a necessity, understanding and desire of the patient to recover and to get back to normal. This bond will be only temporary and is usually being cut by the patient at an appropriate time. The provision of suitable, specifically tailored aviary space is the most commonly used way to encourage a bird to perform active physiotherapy, meaning to encourage the bird to fly and to strengthen his or her muscles.

Raven Zarathustra in her release aviary.
Raven Zarathustra

Zarathustra, a wild adult female raven, is a good example for this treatment approach based on trust, common sense and the targeted use of compliance to achieve the desired goal. She underwent her normal daily assessment and simple physiotherapeutic exercise performed usually twice a day, without the need for constraining the bird and causing unnecessary stress. Zarathustra did cooperate very well and was always in control of the situation. If an exercise did cause her any discomfort, or she was not content enough to proceed, she would either move away or she would make a non-verbal statement to make her intentions clear by using her powerful beak to gently nudge the offending hand away.

Zarathustra made a full recovery and has been successfully released after four weeks of treatment and rehabilitation.