Birds engage in vigorous bathing to keep feathers in good shape



Great Blue Heron sets aside plenty of time to preen its feathers

Birds are natural scene stealers, which is probably why we enjoy watching them and glimpsing their various behaviors. A couple of months ago during a vacation to South Carolina, I got to see many interesting birds, including one new addition to my life list. I also got a glimpse into a variety of interesting bird behaviors. For instance, I observed the different fishing techniques of various herons and egrets.

During a visit to the Native Wildlife Zoo at Brookgreen Gardens, I observed many captive birds. One interesting aspect of the zoo, however, is the fact that wild and captive animals often interact. I was watching some gray and red foxes in their habitat when I noticed something in a corner of the enclosure. As I focused my binoculars on the corner, a whirling dervish of brown and tan feathers was splashing vigorously in the loose sand. The bird — a Carolina wren — had worked itself into a frenzy, tossing dirt and sand all over its small body.


A range of bird baths can provide water for bathing and drinking, which will make yards and gardens more attractive to birds.

Many readers probably know of the appeal to birds of a well-situated and maintained bird bath filled with clean, fresh water. Birds will flock to such attractions to bathe. While a bath in water is one way to maintain a bird’s plumage, it’s not the only method available to help keep feathers in top-notch shape. It might even surprise some readers to learn that access to water is not always essential for proper feather care. Some birds choose to take a “dust bath” in dry earth or sand. The dust or sand serves as an accessible way to scrub parasites out of a bird’s feathers.

While birds taking a bath look like they’re having a lot of fun — and perhaps they are — frequent bathing serves a vital purpose. Feathers are one of the things all birds have in common, but it’s extremely important that birds keep their feathers clean and healthy. Not only are feathers necessary to make flight possible for birds that take to the air, they’re also valuable as insulation to keep birds dry and warm.


A female Northern Pintail splashes vigorously to clean her feathers.

Some birds also put other creatures to work in the constant chore of keeping their feathers in good condition. Many birds utilize ants into their feather-care routine. The behavior is so widespread — more than 200 species use ants to help them take care of their feathers — that the behavior has been given a name, which is “anting.”

The birds are interested in chemicals produced by the ants. Anting is an offshoot of dust bathing and can be achieved in two ways. Birds may passively position themselves near an ant hill, thus ensuring that many ants will swarm though the bird’s feathers. Others more directly pick up ants in their bills and rub the ants on their feathers. Although ants are usually the insect of choice in these feather-care regimens, some birds have used millipedes instead of ants. Although it hasn’t been conclusively proven, many experts think that birds use the ants because of chemicals produced by the insects that repel feather parasites such as mites or to curb potential bacterial or fungal problems.


After a bath, birds like this Northern Pintail devote time to preening their feathers.

Just like some birds make bathing in water a chance to reinforce their social bonds, many species also engage in dust bathing as a communal activity. Some species of quail are known for dust bathing as a group. Northern bobwhites will visit dust bathing sites on a regular basis. In a dust bath, birds will usually toss dust and dirt onto their bodies, working the dust into their feathers. They will also work their bodies, including their heads, into the dust. Since birds cannot exactly use their bills to clean feathers on their heads, this action makes perfect sense.


A Chestnut-sided Warbler bathes in a woodland puddle.

After a bird has concluded a vigorous bath, whether in water or sand, it will usually seek out a perch for a long bout of preening its feathers. While watching the antics of a bathing bird is fun for observers — and often looks fun for the bird, too — it’s a serious business. A bird that neglects these daily chores will soon suffer from dirty, damaged feathers. It’s not just cosmetics for the bird. It’s a matter of life and death. Perhaps that explains the intensity with which birds throw themselves into the activity of bathing.

Offer a shallow, clean pool of water in a bird bath and you won’t wait long for birds to make an appearance. If you have a sandy corner in your yard or garden, you could also leave that spot untouched to see if any birds show up for a quick dirt bath. These are just a few easy touches you can add to your landscape to increase your chances of interacting in the daily lives of some of your favorite birds.


To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email

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