Why do birds take dust baths?

When you’ve observed birds bathing near water points, you may have thought it was time to wash up. On the other hand, when you have observed birds taking dust baths, their usefulness may not have been so clear to you. We give you explanations here.

What are bird dust baths for?

Paradoxically, for us who do not have feathers, birds use dustbaths to clean themselves, just as much as waterbaths. Dust baths correspond to a behavior called sprinkling. These are organized as well in the sand as in the earth. The goal is to get rid of parasites, to disentangle and degrease their feathers. Birds will be more inclined to take dust baths when water is scarce because it is then reserved for hydration. Some bird species use it more than others.

In town, it is possible to observe house sparrows organizing their dust baths in the sandboxes of children’s play areas: they roll in the sand then vigorously wave their wings. You may have the opportunity to observe other passerines resorting to dust baths, such as larks, wrens and thrushes, but also gallinacea (California hake, ring-necked pheasants, helmeted guinea fowl and wild turkeys. .) and columbids.

The importance of maintaining plumage

In birds, beautiful plumage is usually a sign of good health. The maintenance of the plumage is a habit taken very early in the nest: the chicks spend time combing their plumage as soon as the first downs appear.

Maybe you’ve never heard of the uropygian gland ? Many birds have one, but some do not, as do several species of parrots (including cockatoos), pigeons and ostriches. This gland is located at the base of the rump and secretes a substance composed of fatty substances, waxes and vitamin D, which the bird distributes over its plumage during dedicated sessions. The goal is to protect the feathers from external aggressions.

In such moments, the bird contorts to coat its beak with the substance produced by the gland and then spread it on its plumage. The substance is hydrophobic and makes the plumage impermeable. It can trap substances or deteriorate over time. The bird therefore regularly needs to renew this protective layer. However, it cannot be removed with water. This is why the bird resorts to the dust bath: to remove mechanically, by friction, the old protective layer. The feathers can then receive a new layer.

Birds that are not equipped with a uropygial gland also use dust baths to maintain their feathers. It is not a question of getting rid of any fatty layer, but simply of keeping their feathers clean and dry by this ritual.

Rolling around in the dust also suffocates pests like lice and mites.

The dust bath ritual in detail

Dusting occurs when the bird considers it necessary. The bird begins by scratching the ground with its paws to ensure its consistency. He then sags to put his chest in contact with the ground. It rolls and swings. The bird eventually behaves the same as with water, turning its wings to spread dust on its body. The feathers are ruffled or spread out, depending on their location, to allow dust to travel to the skin. The bird also rubs its cheeks against the ground. After this phase of agitation, the bird may pause to catch its breath or monitor what is going on around it. It will start to shake again in the dust as many times as necessary, until he feels he is sufficiently impregnated. Then he shakes himself. If he has a uropygian gland, he will be able to coat his feathers again without delay.

Encourage dust baths in your garden

The dust bath is, just as much as the water point, a means of attracting birds to your garden. Birds may have spontaneously invested a corner of land exposed to the sun or a piece of gravel driveway and bathe there regularly. But if you’ve never seen this type of behavior in your garden, you can set up an area and see if birds are using it.

The space must be large enough for several birds to land there. It must be exposed to the sun because this will facilitate the drying of the material that you will have deposited there, sand or earth. If you choose soil, you can make the bird ritual easier by breaking up clods and protecting the substrate from rains to keep the soil very dry. This area should allow the birds to feel safe. This means that it must be cleared so that they anticipate the arrival of possible predators. You will therefore ensure that you have a clear view all around. Also do whatever it takes to keep cats and other predators at bay.