While I was recording the video below, I was thinking about how much watching birds take a bath is like watching an infant in a kiddie pool.
Arms are flapping and slapping the water. Giggles erupt with each smack of their chubby hands. Droplets of water fly every which way, reflect the sun, and adorn little eyelashes.
You can’t help but smile at the freedom and abandonment of so much enjoyment. And if you were to ask and they could answer, birds would probably agree… bathing is a lot of fun.
While it looks like fun, bathing is no laughing matter to birds.
I’ve written before about providing a birdbath during hot weather, but the truth is birds need to bathe for reasons other than keeping cool. And while science hasn’t figured out exactly what the function of bathing is, or precisely why they do it the way they do, we know it’s vital to their health.
Ticks and Lice and Mites, Oh My!
Birds take a bath, several a day when they can get them, to rid themselves of parasites that can eat their feathers or cause infections and disease.
Ticks, lice, mites, fleas, and other icky, creepy, crawly, and generally gross stuff can pass along viruses, bacteria, and protozoa that can kill a bird fast.
And by the way… the same goes for birdseed that might contain lethal molds or fungi. It’s super important to keep your feeders clean and filled with fresh seed so that birds don’t get sick or pass along something ugly to other birds.
Birds Clean Up Well
A second reason birds bathe is to keep their feathers properly preened. Preening is what birds do when they groom themselves.
During preening, birds will appear to nibble their feathers. What they’re really doing is manipulating each feather to realign the filaments that hook each feather into its proper place and shape.
Birds use an oily, waxy substance produced by a gland near the base of the tail to keeps their feathers waterproof, flexible, and strong. All three are necessary for birds to properly fly.
The oil is produced by a gland near the base of their tail. While preening, undisturbed birds will spend long periods of time spreading the oil on every feather. You’ll sometimes see a bird contorting its body in all sorts of ways to reach the tough spots.
Bathing allows a bird to remove the excess oil that can accumulate and matte their feathers to be washed away. A good bath will also wash away the loosened dirt and dust.
Splish-Splash We’re Taking a Bath
For birds, not every bath has to be in water. If bathing is about getting rid of parasites and keeping their feathers healthy (and all signs do point in that direction), then there are several ways of bathing that will do the trick.
A dust bath is exactly what it sounds like, even if it sounds counterintuitive.
Dust works for birds just like dry shampoo works for us. Both absorb excess oil, leaving feathers (or hair) lighter and cleaner. Wiggling around while making themselves a small dent in the dry soil, birds will rub their heads in the dirt and use their feathers to throw it across their backs.
This YouTube video catches a sparrow in the act (sparrows are champion dust bathers). Just don’t judge the result by normal standards of cleanliness.
Chillin’ and soaking up some rays is another way birds keep it clean.
Sunbathing birds will position their bodies for maximum sun exposure, spreading their wings and fluffing their feathers. The heat of the sun nudges the parasites to move to where the birds can pick them off and (probably) eat them. You’ll notice that many times after sunbathing, a bird will immediately take a dust bath to finish the job.
A third, not commonly seen way of bird bathing is anting.
Some types of ants produce formic acid that is strong enough to kill lice and mites. (FYI: Formic is derived from the Latin word for ant.)
It’s kinda weird, but birds will either rub an ant through their feathers or hang out where ants are gathered and let them run in and out of their feathers. The secreted acid kills the pests.
If you want to know more about anting (it’s more complicated than I’ve let on), then you can get the full scoop here.
Eating and Preening
The #1 and #2 spots on a bird’s daily to do list rarely change:
The importance of eating is obvious. And now that you know about preening, #2 makes perfect sense as well.
Bathing (a big part of preening) is so important to a bird’s survival that observers have watched otherwise territorial birds put aside their differences, if only for a few minutes, to wait their turn before jumping in the water.
A bird’s need to bathe is the reason to keep a bird bath full all year long. It doesn’t matter how cold it gets, birds still need to take the plunge. Investing in a birdbath warmer will stop the water from freezing. (I hope I don’t need to say it, but don’t EVER EVER EVER add anything like anti-freeze to a bird bath to keep it from freezing.)
Show Us Your Birds
If you’ve got them, email your pictures of birds bathing to email@example.com. Water, dust, sunning, ants. It’s all good.
Include your name, where you took the picture, and what kind of bird you think it is. If I get enough, I’ll post a special blog featuring the best.
- Preening barn swallow: Boris Smokrovic from Unsplash
- Sunbathing mourning dove: Randy Adam from PA Birders Facebook Group