Division of Bird Habitat Conservation

Birdscapes: News from International Habitat Conservation Partnerships

Nature's Inspiration

While Watching Ants
by Mary Maruca, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Ants. I saw them first in my kitchen. A line of soldiers scouted through the valley of my sink, collecting crumbs, and hefting them up onto their torsos to carry somewhere. But where? I followed.

Camouflaged, they traveled the highway of black caulk that bonded my countertop to its splashboard, then, hanging close to the cabinet’s edge, marched along the white wall to the floor, where they disappeared behind the baseboard.

I picked up their trail outside my back door. Still in formation, they shouldered their way through a tiny crack. The caravan hiked stolidly, descending to the edge of the back steps. Here they followed the cement ridgeline until each touched ground with its burden and covered the short distance to their anthill home.

What had attracted them into my space?

I blamed myself. When I first moved into my home, I wanted it to be a sanctuary for Nature. A simple idea, perhaps a touch impractical, but the vision of it carried me away, and I spoke my desire aloud in my backyard garden.

This simple announcement seemed to unlatch the door to centipedes and spiders as if issued a written invitation. Camel-backed crickets plopped themselves down on the sunroom rug to watch a little television. Big black water bugs explored the kitchen’s dark corners. . . the ants came, too.

I tried everything:
Ant spray—they bravely bore it like soldiers on an uncomfortable march.
Smashing them to smithereens—I’m not proud of that.
If I could have displayed tiny ant heads on poles to discourage the next set of warriors, I would have.

What finally worked?


Each morning I make my son’s lunch before school. One morning I had fallen short of a basic lunch ingredient: dessert. Retrieving a stashed box, I popped out a candy cane; half of it was gone. I concluded that my son had discovered the cache, consumed part of the cane, and left the remainder. I pulled out a second stick. The bottom third had disappeared, though—mystery of mysteries—the cellophane wrapper remained intact. Puzzled, I yanked a third candy from the box. Something was wrong with this one, too: tiny tunnels extended into the confection’s striped stem. I spotted something brown squeezed between the wrapper and the candy—a dead ant coffined in sweetness.

In that instant, the ants, which had symbolized my own rut and meaningless, repetitive actions, were transformed. The ants became brave, hardworking, diligent, and determined creatures, willing to give up even their lives for a goal.

Piece by piece, they had carried away parts of six peppermint sticks since their arrival. How many ants had it required, and how many had I killed in the process?

From spring to fall, these living lessons from Nature had worked doggedly at their goal. Symbols of determination, they had accomplished what they set out to do simply by being faithful to their life’s purpose.

In the spirit of that dawning awareness, I unwrapped the remaining candy canes and placed them outside near the anthill—an offering of thanks for the teaching as the sun rose.