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For those of us that pay close attention to the wildlife in our backyards and around our neighborhoods and cities, you may have noticed a bird playing in the dirt at some point. Or maybe you don’t think of it as playing, but alarming instead. After all, the way that some birds flail around and kick up dust may be distressing to those that don’t know what they’re witnessing.
But what you’re actually witnessing is neither the sign of a bird playing nor a sign that the bird is in distress. What the bird is actually doing is taking a dust bath, which is a perfectly normal part of many birds’ behavior. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at why birds do this, as well as what you can do to encourage dust bathing in your own yard.
Birds may bathe in one of two ways: using water or dust. Some may bathe both ways and follow up a water bath with a dust bath. But all birds that bathe do so for one reason, which is to keep their feathers and plumage clean. Dust baths are essentially a type of preening behavior, and birds preen themselves as a way to keep their feathers not only looking good but also in good working order.
Most birds, with the exception of Amazon parrots, pigeons, and doves, have a gland at the base of their tail called the uropygial gland, or preening gland. This gland produces preening oil, a special oil that helps to coat a bird’s feathers to keep them shiny and conditioned, but it also aids in waterproofing the feathers as well. In fact, waterfowl have the most developed uropygial gland because of the waterproofing function.
When birds preen themselves, it spreads the oil throughout their feathers. However, having too much oil in their feathers can make the feathers appear greasy. It can even cause them to become matted, which can affect how well the feathers function.
As a result, many birds will cover themselves in dust, as dust serves the function of helping to absorb the excess oil. The dust can be easily removed from the feathers once it absorbs the oil, and dead skin and parasites can be removed from the bird’s feathers during dusting as well.
Again, if you’ve never seen a bird taking a dust bath before, the behavior can seem concerning or like the bird is distressed if you don’t know what you’re looking at. Knowing how birds take dust baths is important for making sure that you know what the behavior is when you see it.
The exact behaviors that birds exhibit when taking a dust bath depend on the species. But, in general, when taking a dust bath, birds begin by scraping at the dirt with their feet. Doing so creates a wallow or a depression in the ground. Birds get into the wallow and rub their heads in it and throw dust on themselves by shaking and flapping their wings.
They may repeat this behavior several times, but once they feel like they are sufficiently coated in dust, they shake all of the dust off of themselves. The bird may then continue to further preen themselves after the dust bath.
Dust bathing can be seen in many different species of birds. However, there are some that are more likely to take dust baths than others, and certain instances in which dust baths become more common. For example, you probably already know that birds bathe in water as well which is why you may have a birdbath in your yard.
In places where there is standing water, birds will bathe by either wading in the water, dipping their feathers in the water, or darting in and out of water. They may do this several times a day, especially when the weather is warmer, and they may or may not follow a water bath up with a dust bath. But in dry, arid regions in which there is less standing water available, this is where birds are more likely to take dust baths.
Even if water is available, there are some birds that just prefer to dust bathe. Examples include California quail, pheasants, wrens, house sparrows, game birds, raptors, and larks. In addition, wrens and sparrows are among the birds that may take just a dust bath or may follow up with a dust bath immediately after bathing with water.
You can encourage dust bathing in your yard, or attract more birds that take dust baths to your yard, by creating a place where they can do so. One of the easiest ways to do this is to essentially build a sandbox in a sunny location in your yard and fill it with fine-grain sand, dirt, or soil. Create a border around the sandbox to keep the “dust” contained.
You’ll also want to make sure that you keep the sandbox maintained. Keep the soil free of plants and rocks and break up any clumps, especially after the dust gets wet. You’ll also want to make sure the birds feel safe by avoiding planting anything near the dust bath that a predator could hide in and having some type of shelter close by.
If you see a bird dust bathing, it is totally normal behavior. Many species of birds do this as part of their normal preening routine in order to keep their feathers in good condition. Now that you know what the behavior is and why birds do it, you can encourage dust bathing in your yard by creating your own dust bath. And knowing which bird species are more likely to dust bathe, creating a dust bath may help you be able to more easily identify some of the birds in your yard as well.
Featured Image Credit: tulika_anna, Pixabay
Savanna is a former science teacher who is now a full-time freelance writer currently living in the United States with her husband and daughter. Other members of her family include a long-haired chihuahua named Penny, three cats, and an aquatic turtle named Creek. In addition to writing, her passions include gardening, traveling, and protecting our wildlife and natural resources.
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