Birders who see a bird flapping frantically in the dirt may at first be startled or alarmed, but the bird is simply taking a dust bath and is not in distress in any way. But why do birds do this, and how can you encourage dust bathing in your backyard?
Why Birds Take Dust Baths
Dust baths, also called dusting or sand bathing, are part of a bird’s preening and plumage maintenance that keeps feathers in top condition. The dust that is worked into the bird’s feathers will absorb excess oil to help keep the feathers from becoming greasy or matted, and the oil-soaked dust is then shed easily to keep the plumage clean and flexible. Dry skin and other debris can also be removed with excess dust, and regular dusting may help smother or minimize lice, feather mites and other parasites.
Hundreds of bird species have been recorded as dusting, though the frequency of the habit varies for each species, the time of year and the local climate conditions. Sparrows of many types are some of the most frequent dusters, as are game birds including California quail, ring-necked pheasants, helmeted guineafowl and wild turkeys. Thrushes, thrashers, larks and wrens take regular dust baths, and birds that live in arid regions such as the greater roadrunner, crested caracara and plain chachalaca are commonly seen dust bathing. Even some raptors, including different species of kestrels, will use dust bathing for part of their preening.
How Birds Dust
Birds take dust baths more frequently in arid habitats and during hotter seasons when water for bathing is less widely available, though dusting can occur anywhere and at any time when a bird feels it is necessary to keep its feathers well groomed.
To take a dust bath, a bird begins by scraping their feet in dry, fine, crumbly dirt or sand to create a wallow. Lowering the breast to the ground and rolling or rocking may deepen the depression, and the bird will flip its wings vigorously, similar to bathing in water, to spread dust over the entire body. During this frantic motion, the feathers may be fluffed and the tail spread so the dust can reach the skin more easily, and the bird may rub its head to the ground as well to coat the shorter feathers on the cheeks. After a few moments of this dry bathing, the bird will pause, but the bathing motion may be repeated until the bird is sufficiently coated in dust. At that time, the bird may fly to a nearby perch or will first shake off some excess dust before perching. Preening or sunning often follows immediately after a dust bath as the bird continues its extensive grooming regimen.
When birders see a dusting bird, they may initially be concerned that the bird is injured or sick. Watch the bird’s motion carefully for several moments, however, to see that it finishes its dust bath, and its behavior will return to a calmer, more relaxed state. Depending on the species, birds may take several dust baths each day, and often return to favored spots that already have popular wallows and suitable soil for dusting.
Help Dusting Birds
Adding a dust bath area to a bird-friendly landscape is a great way to make an area more attractive to birds and observe this entertaining behavior. If birds have already adopted a section of a sun-exposed flowerbed, gravel driveway or sandbox for regular dusting, the area can easily be preserved for their use. If no such area exists, build a dust bath by providing a dry, sunny area with fine soil free from clumps, plants or rocks. To keep the dirt and dust contained despite birds’ vigorous bathing, ring it with rocks or a decorative border, but be sure the dust bath is large enough to accommodate several birds at once. Breaking up dirt clumps and keeping the soil very dry is essential for it to be an attractive dust bath, and while there should be shelter nearby for birds to retreat if they feel threatened, prune away shrubs or plants next to the dust bath that could conceal a hunting predator.
Taking regular dust baths is an important part of many birds’ preening regimens, and it can be a fascinating behavior to watch. Backyard birders who provide a suitable dusting area may witness many species taking advantage of the dust, and doing so is a great way to help meet birds’ unique needs and keep them healthy.
Photo – House Sparrow Taking a Dust Bath © Vix_B