While exploring a relative’s farm in Polk County, I once climbed into a deer stand overlooking the property’s woodlands, wetlands and croplands. It was a gorgeous October evening as the setting sun, casting the day’s final rays of warmth, began its descent behind groves of aspen trees.
Despite the summer’s drought, a nearby stock pond – years removed since being used by livestock – contained a trace amount of stagnant water. Grown-over spoil piles of soil completely covered with grasses, forbs, willows, and even a few trees, surrounded the old dugout pond.
It wasn’t long after I had settled into the elevated stand that I began hearing a loud, splashing hullabaloo springing somewhere from the pond. The racket sounded like dozens of hand-cranked eggbeaters agitating the water’s surface all at once.
At first I couldn’t make out the source of the noises because of the dense willow thickets along the banks of the pond, but I did make out, barely, ringlets spreading across the water. So, with the aid of binoculars I at last identified the noisemakers.
American robins – and lots of them.
The fall migrants were making pit stops into the pond for a quick bath and possibly a drink. 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 a half minute for each bird to complete – the robins flew into the limbs of an adjacent cottonwood tree for drying off. I watched in delight while each bird completed the identical act: a lot of shaking, fluffing out of feathers, feather rustling, and preening activities before abruptly taking flight to parts unknown. And a few moments later another wave of robins arrived for the next round of 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 tiptop shape. It’s all about feather maintenance and feather cleaning.
Summer bathing helps keep birds cool, 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 warm during cold weather. If a bird cannot fluff out its feathers during harsh weather like the extreme chill of wintertime, the insulative qualities of their feather outer and under parts are lost. For example, when you observe a black-capped chickadee all fluffed out like a little tennis ball on a frosty winter day, you are observing a bird keeping itself warm. Its erect feathers trap air, which helps to keep the chickadee warm and dry.
Preening activity is another bird act that normally follows bath time. First, though, 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, well, 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 the species.
When a bird enters the water it fluffs out its feathers to expose its skin underneath. While its belly and breast are underwater, the bird dips its head and back into the water over and over again in a rocking-like motion while flapping its wings vigorously, thus creating a shower in the process. And, following bathing, like the robins I observed in the stock pond, they typically fly somewhere nearby to shake off any excess water so they can dry and preen themselves.
For those of you who love feeding and providing for your backyard wild birds, consider adding a good birdbath if you have not already done so. Not only are birdbaths designed for thirsty birds looking for a cool and refreshing drink, they provide a comfortable place for many birds to bathe in. Some styles of birdbaths are heated for wintertime use, too. And don’t worry about the cold; birds seem to have the sense to bathe only when ambient temperatures are appropriate for doing so.
Indeed, observing our avian bathing beauties is just something else to appreciate about birds as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.