Spare a cig­gie?

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Your Feedback -

I had thought that smok­ing a cig­a­rette to ward off midges was an old wives’ tale. But re­cently I saw a rook at a mo­tor­way ser­vice sta­tion in Cum­bria tear­ing a cig­a­rette stub apart, be­fore low­er­ing it­self onto the re­mains and rub­bing its chest on the to­bacco. Another rook joined it shortly af­ter­wards and did the same thing. Does this odd be­hav­iour have some­thing to do with par­a­sites? Roderic Mather, Via email

Jo Wim­penny re­sponds: Var­i­ous an­i­mals are known to ‘self-anoint’, ap­ply­ing var­i­ous sub­stances to skin, fur or feath­ers. Many birds will rub ants through their plumage to stim­u­late the in­sects to pro­duce formic acid, which may kill feather par­a­sites. The to­bacco plant pro­duces nat­u­rally high lev­els of ni­co­tine, a po­tent in­sect neu­ro­toxin, as a de­fence strat­egy against her­biv­o­rous in­sects. There’s some ev­i­dence that an­i­mals may utilise ni­co­tine’s insecticid­al prop­er­ties; house spar­rows have been ob­served build­ing fluff from cig­a­rette butts into their nests, and chicks that grew in these suf­fered fewer par­a­sites than chicks in nests with­out the fluff. It’s pos­si­ble that the rooks you saw gleaned a sim­i­lar ben­e­fit , but it’s dif­fi­cult to say for sure. It would cer­tainly be in­ter­est­ing to ex­plore this fur­ther!

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