Splish-splash! Why is so important for birds to bathe?
What better way is there to start or end your day with a good shower? Getting ready for the day or at the end of a long day's work, it feels as though you are cleaning not only your body, but your soul.
For birds, it's even more crucial.
In fact, for birds, apart from the social aspect of preening or cooling off from the heat, bathing is really important for their survival. Their feathers need to be washed and cleaned and in pristine condition. Water cleanses them from dirt, parasites, bacteria and other unpleasantries. This is important because should their feathers stay unwashed, these pests can damage their feathers, cause infections, disease and perhaps even kill our poor flyer.
Once the feathers are washed, it is easier for the birds to preen. Birds actually have a preening gland at the base of their tail. They spread oil from this gland along their plumage to become waterproof, especially during cold weather. The birds essentially insulate their body from the freezing climate by wrapping warm air around their feathers.
Birds can spend a loooot of time preening. They reach every single feather, making sure each and every one is cleaned, oiled and in its place. It’s actually kind of funny seeing them trying so hard to reach the feather furthest from their reach. That's why it takes time. If not threatened by a predator or rushing to feed their offspring, birds can spend hours on end preening away.
Birds have quite a few types of baths. For Instance, how do you look after yourself if there is no water?
As weird as it sounds, dust actually cleans… well - dust. On a camel trip I did in India, the guides cleaned our plates with sand. The plates came out squeaky clean. I thought about how the birds adopted the same mechanism. While bathing, dust absorbs superfluous oil, leaving the feathers cleaner (and lighter!)
Watch these birds creating a dimple in the ground and rubbing themselves in the sand, some of which flies up in the air as they try to reach and clean their nether part.
It’s funny that we say sunbathe - but how does the sun bathe us? Well, actually, we do get some sort of a bath. The sun’s rays activate the synthesis of vitamin D in our bodies which is essential for building bones. And that’s only one small example.
Sun is as important for birds. They spread their wings wide in the sunlight and ruffle their feathers to get maximum sunshine. This heat gets parasites to crawl out of their feather crevices - after which the birds pick them off and (probably) nibble on them. Usually, the sunbath is followed by a dust bath.
Some birds, such as bluejays, use ants to preen and clean. Ants actually produce formic acid to kill bacteria, pests, mites and the like. Did you know that the word Formic is derived from Formica, the Latin word for ant?
We humans use formic acid as a food preservative, as it is an antibacterial substance. It's also used to kill pests and help a variety of industrial processes.
The birds use the same idea to get rid of their own pests. They either lie on an ants’ nest and let the ants crawl in and out of their feathers to eat their pests or actively pick up the ants and rub them on their plumage.
Bathing/preening is so vital for the survival of birds, that territorial birds will “lay down their swords” and wait their turn to splash in the water. Like an unseen contract between all flyers, they know what this means to them. This is a great reason to have a birdbath in your garden year round. Other than it being a soothing (and beautiful) entity in your garden, it can save a bird’s life. This is true for summer as well as winter. Having a birdbath warmer to stop the water from freezing when temperatures drop is the ultimate birdbath to have.
Besides having a bird feeder in your garden, the birdbath will keep the birds coming back, keeping you company for longer periods of time. A treat for you, your children, your grandchildren and a great way to keep wildlife alive, healthy and beautiful to watch.