I re-posted “Welcoming the Day” in my last blog entry because I had once again woken up to the vocalizations of a Band-tailed Pigeon and I had a strong recollection of the first morning that had happened. The same event played out once again this morning, but the pigeon was not alone. After drifting easily and pleasantly to consciousness with the soft cooing sound drifting down from above, I started to hear the intermittent, single-note, metallic sounding whistle of a Varied Thrush coming from somewhere nearby. He was answered by another thrush whistling back at him from an undetermined distance. I might have gotten out of bed to investigate, but I discovered that I was trapped.
My 16-pound cat Oliver lay on my left side, snuggled up against my body on top of the blankets. My 17-pound cat Henry was on my right, also snuggled against my side and also on top of the blankets. I was firmly pinned to the mattress as the cats’ combined weight pressed down on the blanket on both sides of me. My third cat, Otis, weighing in at a mere 14 pounds, noticed that my eyes were open and jumped up onto the bed. He proceeded to lay down on top of my legs, ruling out the possibility of my sliding up and out of the sheets and escaping from the opening at the top.
As the two-part choir in the yard was joined by a third, cawing voice, I laid my hands on top of Oliver and Henry and began to scratch their backs. In unison, they began to purr. Henry emitted his deep, satisfied rumbling and Oliver settled into his slightly more airy version of kitty bliss. Sandwiched between them it felt like I was getting a light massage on both of my flanks. I looked down at Otis who was looking back at me with half-closed, very content eyes. I let my head fall back onto the pillow, and dozed off again with sounds both wild and domestic ringing in my ears.
I looked at my alarm clock exactly one minute before it was set to go off this morning. I quickly reached over and turned it off to spare myself from the racket that evil machine makes. I intended to get up at that point, but the room was chilly and the bed was warm. I started to drift. Just as consciousness was slipping away, a comforting noise floated down to me from above. I thought it was a dream at first, but as it repeated I started to come back to my senses. The part of my brain that is obsessed with identification and naming came back online and the sound I was hearing resonated with something in my memory. Before I was even fully aware of it, the words “Band-tailed Pigeon” danced across my mind and then the sound I was hearing became crystal clear. Recognition of the repeated, deep cooing sounds brought me fully awake in a way that was the complete opposite of what my alarm clock had in store for me. I did not wake up groggy and annoyed. I woke up with a smile, feeling at peace in the knowledge that a wild creature was in the cedar tree hanging over my roof, and he was welcoming the day with his version of a song.
The South Meadow at Discovery Park in Seattle was alive with avian activity today. Small flocks of House Finches flitted from tree to tree. Two Anna’s Hummingbirds engaged in aerial combat as they argued over territorial matters. Song Sparrows sang from low perches and robins foraged in the wide expanses of grass. As interesting as all of this business was, it was overshadowed by the boisterous presence of a large contingent of excited crows.
The sun was shining down on the meadow and had warmed the ground to the point at
which the resident ant population began to stir. The 50 or more crows that were present in the trees scattered about the meadow were taking turns flying down to the ground in smaller groups. These “mini-murders” were giving the ants some unwanted home modification assistance, poking and prodding the ant mounds with their bills and generally making a mess of them. The unfortunate ants that were responding to the attack on their colony were either being eaten or duped into assisting the attacking crows with their personal hygiene.
It has been hypothesized that crows and some other bird species intentionally rile up anthills to use the unwitting ants as a sort of anti-parasitic treatment. When angry ants bite, they release formic acid, which you can imagine is not a very pleasant substance. Since the birds’ feathers are dead tissue like our fingernails, the ants don’t cause them any pain when they latch onto their feathers and release the acid; However, the mites and lice that often live on bird’s feathers are encouraged to take up residence elsewhere when they suddenly find that their home has been acidified.
This theory of bird/ant interaction certainly seemed to fit with what I was seeing today at the park. Although the crows were definitely eating some of the ants, they were also lying down on the stirred up anthills and spreading their wings out on the ground as if to welcome the little feather-biters aboard. When I have witnessed this behavior in the past, I have even seen the ants clinging furiously to the crow’s wing feathers after the birds flew back up to a perch in a nearby tree.
Whatever the true extent of the relationship between crows and ants, their interactions are fascinating to observe. These “anting parties” are clearly significant social events for the birds. Their jovial demeanor as they poke and prod the ant colonial stands out in stark contrast to the quiet desperation of the defending ants.