Klemek Outdoors Column: Birds and Bathing

Blane Klemek

Years ago while on a late October, evening deer hunt in Polk County not far from Crookston, a flock of robins landed on the ground adjacent to a nearby wetland. The fall migrants were making pit stops for a drink and, surprisingly, quick baths. Wave after wave of small flocks of robins poured into the shallows of the pond’s edges for wing-beating, head-and-body dunking baths. It was a spectacle that lasted until almost dark.

After each bird was through with their baths—which usually seemed to last about half a minute for each bird to complete—the robins flew into the limbs of an adjacent cottonwood tree for drying off. I watched while each bird did pretty much the same thing: a lot of shaking, fluffing out feathers, feather rustling, and preening activities before abruptly taking flight and leaving the area. And a few moments later another wave of robins arrived for the next round of drinks and baths.

The experience got me thinking about why birds bathe in the first place. It has long been believed that one primary reason birds take baths is because it helps remove unwanted parasites from their bodies and feathers. While this may be partly true, the real reason is plain and simply that it’s what many birds do—and need to do—in order to keep their feathers in good working condition. It’s all about feather maintenance.

Summer bathing helps keep birds cool, too, but a good bath anytime is necessary for a number of other, more important reasons. Obviously, most birds fly. Therefore, birds require well maintained feathers in order for them to escape predators, migrate, roost, nest, and find food, water, and shelter, among many other reasons.

Poor conditioned feathers can also negatively affect a bird’s ability to keep out the cold. If a bird cannot fluff out its feathers during harsh weather like the extreme chill of wintertime (think penguins), the insulative qualities of their feather-covering is lost. For example, when you observe a black-capped chickadee all fluffed out like a little tennis ball on a frosty winter day, you’re seeing a bird keeping itself warm. Its erect feathers trap air, which helps to keep the chickadee warm and comfortable.

Preening is another bird activity that normally follows bath time. But first you need to know a little bit about feather anatomy. Each and every “vane” that extends laterally from the shaft of a bird’s contour feathers is linked to each other by a system of barbules with hooklets interlocking with other nearby barbules. An excellent analogy would be to study the two components that make Velcro, Velcro.

This unique feather system keeps the complete feather vane intact. So, if you have ever observed a bird preening itself you have witnessed a bird “re-hooking” these barbules to each other to maintain each feather’s integrity as a fully functioning, healthy feather. Preening also removes parasites and rearranges out-of-place feathers.

Considering the fact that there are over 9,500 species of birds worldwide and that the amount of feathers on a bird can number from several hundred to several thousand depending on the particular species of bird, the bathing routine is remarkably similar between species.

When a bird enters the water it fluffs out its feathers so its skin is exposed. While its belly and breast is underwater, the bird dips its head and back into the water over and over again in a rocking motion while flapping its wings vigorously, thus creating a shower in the process. And, following bath time, like the robins I observed in the pond, they typically fly somewhere nearby to shake off any excess water and to dry and preen.

For those of you who love feeding and providing for our wild birds, a good birdbath is standard equipment for backyard birding. Not only are birdbaths designed for thirsty birds looking for a drink, they provide a comfortable place for many birds to bathe in. Some styles of birdbaths are heated for wintertime use. As such, don’t worry about birds freezing from taking winter baths. Birds seem to have the sense to avoid taking baths in sub-zero weather. Indeed, observing bathing birds is another fascinating avian behavior as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek