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Why Birds Bathe

Why Birds Bathe

Lady cardinal. Photo by Melissa Reckner.
August 11, 2020

It might seem like common sense, but have you ever wondered why birds bathe?  

It’s been a hot summer. Even here in Western Pennsylvania, we had more 90-degree days in July than we have had in several years. And while our rainfall is slightly above the normal year-to-date measurement, we had a dry spell that, combined with high temperatures, made my bird bath—or, as I like to call it, the “bird wash”—a popular place for our avian visitors.

A catbird seems to scold its mate at this water fountain.
A catbird seems to scold its mate at this water fountain.
I enjoy watching the birds’ antics around watering holes, and the popularity of these stands of water made me wonder why birds bathe. Undoubtedly, they come to drink. Most birds dip their bill into the water and then tilt their heads back to allow gravity to carry the water into their belly. Some birds can use their tongue, like dogs and cats, to fill their bill with water, but then they must tip their head back to swallow. Doves and pigeons, however, can suck water while their heads are down.  

These robins knew how to share.
These robins knew how to share.
Of course, birds need water for basic life functions, but why bathe? Does it make them smell better? Feel better? Look better? While those all may be true, the real reasons include their need to cool off in high temperatures. Birds do not have sweat glands, but they still lose water through their skin via evaporation, with smaller birds needing to hydrate more often due to their higher surface-to-body ratio because of this. Just like our sweat or water from a dip evaporates and cools us, water evaporates and cools birds. 

This titmouse was a little flippant.
This titmouse was a little flippant.
Water also helps birds clean and maintain their feathers, because, while feathers are replaced, they’re not replenished with a frequency that allows birds to neglect their care. Good feathers are necessary for flight, insulation and waterproofing. Birds can’t get soaked, though, because that would impede their ability to fly and escape predators—which is probably why birds don’t linger in the bath. Further, bathing removes dirt, bacteria and parasites. Eww, right? That alone should be reason enough to change the water in your bird baths often, even daily. 

A cardinal seems incredulous that a sparrow is in his bath.
A cardinal seems incredulous that a sparrow is in his bath.
To make your bird baths appealing, keep fresh water in them—which means scrubbing the algae, droppings and dirt out every few days. Water should be no more than three inches deep, and it’s best to taper to that depth. Because their hollow bones make them very buoyant, birds have to splash about, dipping and diving, like in dodgeball, to get water on their skin. Shallow pools help with that. Birds also seem to like texture in the bath, so it's best to add a few stones that they may step on or you can purchase a textured bath. A drip fountain or mister and the sound of water will attract birds, too. Place your bird bath in the shade to keep the water cooler and lessen algae growth and position it near shrubs or trees to which birds may escape or stop, preen and wipe their bill. 

A robin closes his eyes and seems to take a bow.
A robin closes his eyes and seems to take a bow.
Finally, remember that birds need water year-round, and while they can “eat” snow, liquifying it could consume vital calories. Unless your dedicated enough to replace the ice blocks that form in cold temps, consider investing in a heated bird bath. I have a thermostatically controlled outlet on mine that will kick on the heat when the air temperature falls below 35°F. The combination of that outlet and a heated bird bath was one of my favorite presents from Santa!


Photos by Melissa Reckner.