Winter Bird Baths-Feb. 2004

Polar Birds
Do birds bathe in the winter?

We have all seen or read about the undaunted souls who don their swim suits and dip their unsuspecting bodies into our local waterways in the middle of winter. We think: “how could they do that?”

One bright February day I was hiking on the snow covered trails in Bird Park. Suddenly, I heard water splashing. To my surprise, I saw a Song Sparrow bathing in the intermittent stream. Later that day I saw another Song Sparrow, a Cardinal, and two White-throated Sparrows bathing in water pools. Birds bathing in winter? It didn’t seem possible.

I began searching through my library of bird references to learn more about the bathing habits of birds. However, I could not find any information. It seems that very little is known about the bathing habits of birds. I decided to try to discover more about them myself.

HOW BIRDS BATHE: I started roaming the fields and woods in winter, spring summer, and fall. Birds seem to prefer clean water running over stones or gravel especially if the water is well protected with bushes or trees. If clean water is not protected, the birds seem to prefer to bathe in muddy water if it has the protection of plants and trees. Thus “safety first” seems to be the rule. I watched my bird tapes and noticed that when a bird bathes, the eyes of birds are closed for a few seconds. They cannot see what happens around them, so protection from their enemies is important.

I have also learned something about the ways in which birds bathe. Most birds, like sparrows, finches, Cardinals, Mockingbirds and others, first land on the ground or on a root at the water’s edge. Then they wade into water. If it is shallow, they settle down and let the water cool the lower parts of their bodies. Then they fluff their feathers so the water reaches their skin.

Since I have five birds living in my home, I know that birds look as if they are stuffed with feathers. But if you could take a close look and lift the feathers, you would see there is a pattern in which feathers grow. This pattern differs from bird to bird in order to give maximum coverage. But there is definitely plenty of space between each feather. So the feathers of the bird are like shingles on a roof. The feathers are also arranged in groups with bare spaces between the groups of feathers. When the body is dipped into the water and rolled, the water flows through the bare spaces and among the groups of feathers. Then the bird pauses for a few seconds and shakes the feathers back and forth, or vibrates them. The water is squeezed though them and rinses the skin. The bird repeats the rolling of its body and vibration of feathers until the skin is clean. The water is then shaken off.

As the feathers dry, the bird oils and arranges them with its bill. The oil is taken from glands above the base of the bird’s tail (preen glands). This oil keeps the feathers soft and flexible (think of hair conditioner). When water rolls off a duck’s back, it’s due to oil from the preen glands.

A different type of bathing is practiced by the Red-eyed Vireo. They alight on a branch of a tree or bush near the water and use it as a diving board. Chickadees and Yellowthroats take short and quick dips into the water. They leap from one pebble or root to another in and out of the water. I have never seen a woodpecker bathe. I wonder if their bathing habits are less frequent or if they prefer dust baths or some other method of caring for their skin.

These are a few things I’ve learned after many years of observations in the woods and in my home. There are still many unanswered question about the bathing habits of birds. Perhaps you can discover something new about bird behavior this new year.

BIRDBATHS WOO WILDLIFE: Any clean, shallow container will serve well as a birdbath. Make sure it is about ½ inch deep and 6 to 8 inches wide like a saucer. I use a flower pot base. Make sure you can tilt it easily to clean it. Place a large stone in the middle to give it stability as well as a place for birds to light before entering the water. Fill it with plain tap water and clean your bath every two to three days to avoid algae growth. Remember the bird cares about safety first when you look for a location for your birdbath. Water set right on the ground attracts the most wildlife.

If one birdbath can make wildlife feel welcome, think of what several differ kinds of birdbaths can draw to your yard! Besides serving wildlife well, a variety of birdbaths dotting your landscape adds to you own daily viewing pleasures.

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