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Is it a bird, is it a plane?

Posted by on July 19, 2012

Flying ant survey - report flying ant day sightingsSometimes it isn’t ants that alert people to flying ant day, but raucous flocks of gulls. Flying ant day occurs once a year, around now, when winged black garden ants emerge in their millions ready to mate.

Black-headed gull on flying ant dayThis is quite a spectacle, partly because of the birds it attracts. Thousands of gulls often loudly make their presence known where they aren’t normally present in large numbers. Often, they are nowhere near the sea. In fact, many of our species of ‘seagull’ will spend lots of time inland.

The gulls making the most of flying ant day include the herring gull and the black-headed gull. Black-headed gulls are smaller and daintier than herring gulls, and are the most common gull species seen inland. In the summer it is recognisable by its black head (actually chocolate brown) but it loses the colour over the winter. Like most gulls, black-headed gulls live for a long time, sometimes over 60 years.

Herring gulls are much larger, and their varied diet includes fish, crabs, smaller seabirds, birds eggs – and chips! But they also enjoy insects, including delicacies such as flying ants.

Herring gull flying ant day

Another bird which knows flying ant day as feast day is the swift. These elegant birds feed, drink, mate and sleep on the wing, and only land to breed. When they leave the nest young swifts will go 2-3 years without landing!

Since launching the flying ant survey I have had some wonderful accounts of people’s experiences of flying ant day and I would love to hear yours. Please do add them to the comments below this blog post. One question we have been asked is do gulls get drunk on flying ants? If you have any questions about flying ants then please add them too: we will be putting ant questions to Professor Adam Hart from the University of Gloucestershire.

Also, look out for flying ant day and send in your records. Many of the records we’ve had so far have come from inside buildings and greenhouses – you can see them the map below. So there seem to be some winged ants waiting for a sunny day.

Rebecca Nesbit, Society of Biology

View Flying Ant Survey 2012 in a larger map

9 Responses to Is it a bird, is it a plane?

  1. andrew

    Gulls feed on ants in the air as well. If you think it is a lot of effort for such a big bird to run round picking up little ants in the garden it seems an awful lot of effort for them to fly round grabbing them in the air.
    Their erratic aerial activity when feeding on the flying ants in the summer is quite distinctive.
    This year (before I heard your first broadcast) I was hanging out the washing in the field (which I do quite a lot as we have self catering holiday lodges). A few fields away I spotted the gulls flying round erratically which I thought might be “anting”, as they drifted nearer I saw there were a lot of swallows and house martins with them. Then I began to see ants in the air quickly reaching almost one per cubic meter. As I began to see ants in the air, I looked down at the ground and ants were coming out, the grass was soon covered in ants. It was not covered with ants when I went out with the washing. How did they know flying ants were coming?
    Question for the boffins: do the flighting ants release pheromones that tell the other colonies downwind to fly now?
    They were “red” ants. In some places on the pasture we have ant hills which look like the pictures of the yellow meadow ants make (they seem to adopt mole hills, then the rabbits sit on top and fertilise them and the ants bring up more soil grains and so they grow, often with a nicely fertilized green grass top). We are on the sandy soils of the Suffolk coast and when the grass is short the green woodpeckers love to feed on the ants.
    Re your survey questions. It has always seemed to me that when you get hot “close” thundery weather ( when you think there is thunder on the way) the black ants at the door start to emerge and fly, but maybe that is a coincidence. I don’t suppose this summer weather helped you analyse your records for this much. Usually here in Suffolk it is dry and then the summer thunderstorms arrive and the ants emerge. Is there a good chance of thermals before a thunderstorm that will help the ants rise up and that humidity rise is the only weather forecast that the ants can sense? You can see the seagulls get into “anting” activity and gradually rise up and away as though the whole is group is drifting in a thermal.
    The black ants at the back door have settled in now, but when we first moved in and made some alterations, we had black ants that came in the back door. I traced the trail of ants that conveniently went along a ledge of brick footings and along the bare ground in places, round barn walls for 70 metres to their nest! Most impressive.

  2. Zoe

    Millions of flying ants have emerged from their nest all along our front garden wall,the grass is moving, it’s quite astounding to see, my little girls not so impressed though, she doesn’t like our new guests!, and it must be everywhere the sky is full of birds!, we have a lesser amount round the back emerging from a brick wall but definately not as impressive as the ‘moving grass’

  3. Mark

    Just love these creatures, I wish I could fly with them once 🙂

  4. Paul Holley

    Talking of birds feasting on flying ants, I recall a particularly large swarm of flying ants in (I think) 1984 when I lived in Somerset. This attracted all manner of birds to my parents’ garden, and so intent were they on gobbling down the ants that they seemed to lose their usual wariness and would allow you to get very close to them. Even wood pigeons joined in the feast….

  5. Rebecca Nesbit

    Oh but they do such good things for the soil!

    Thanks for sharing your stories. I was disappointed not to see a gull spectacle this year (so far anyway)

  6. PennyPincher (A Pen name)

    When we first moved to Sidmouth it was quite spooky to see hundreds of herring gulls running up our quiet road gobbling from The Tarmac road, attacking stone walls & concrete drives. It was only later I found they were after flying ants. Wouldn’t think such small insects would be worth the effort for such large birds.
    Have also seen gulls doing a lively paddle dance on lawn then feeding – on ants I assume.
    Bloody ants have ruined the lawns this year: little ant hills all over

  7. Luis Silva

    Hello. I’m writing from Portugal. The same fenomenon hapens around here and i’d like to share my experience.
    There are several species of ants and they have different times along the year to perform the mating ritual. I’m not shure about the size of the ants, object of your study, but they seem to be around 1-2 cm long (females are bigger than males). If that’s the case, the ritual here hapens in September and/or October depending on the weather. Last year i took some pictures of males as late as the end of October. It was a dry year!!
    It’s a quite interesting cicle. So they choose a day after a not too rainy day to perform the ritual. Mainly in the morning if the sun’s shining and shortly after it begins to strike their colony. First the soldiers appear to see if there are any predators around and if the coast is clear, then the future queens and males start to show up. If there are bushes nearby they climb them as high as they can and then take off. They couple in the air, during their flight and after which the male will soon die (mission accomplished!) and the female drops her wings and starts looking for a new place to dig and construct a new colony in which she will be the queen.
    Of course the birds take advantage of all the insects flying around and it is a big feast for them. But there’s another side of the story around here in the country side, a darker reality. People noticed that behaviour of the birds regardind the flying ants and started looking for the ant colonies and weeks before the ants are ready to fly away they used to dig in and pick only the females, because they are bigger, and used them in traps to catch birds looking for food.
    Hope it was somehow helpfull…

  8. Jamie

    i live right next to the sea on the south coast in a town called Deal in by the sea,we have a large number of seagulls resident in the town the whole year round.i have noticed that,each year when the ants swarm,the seagulls,(obviously a very large bird),make a point of feasting on these,(obviously very small),creatures.this produces in the seagulls what i can only describe as ‘intoxicated’ behaviour,i.e.their movements become sluggish,flight is eratic and their calling to each other becomes different to the’s almost like the gulls are getting a ‘high’ from the ants-gulls feeding on ants from the tarmac on the middle of the roads are very unconcerned about traffic,which they just sidestep instead of flying off-the gulls
    seem much more concerned with trying to guzzle as many ants as they can.
    i’m guessing there must be some kind of chemical in the ants that reacts with the seagulls,and makes them ‘feel good’ and thus consume more ants??