BIRD WATCH: Sunbathing birds can turn heads

THE PICTURE WASN’T very clear but the description that went with it was.

The writer was concerned about a Steller’s jay in her yard. It was exhibiting some very strange behavior.

The bird flew to a spot just under her window, spread its wings out on the ground, tipped its head skyward and began panting.

I remember the first time I witnessed a similar event. That bird was also a Steller’s jay but over the years, robins, towhees, song sparrows and even a goldfinch have acted in this way.

All of these birds were doing the same thing: They were taking baths, sun baths as well as dust baths.

This is the time of the year when the chance of seeing such a performance is the greatest.

It isn’t very dry and dusty for most of the year in the Pacific Northwest.

Afternoon sun seems to trigger these performances. That’s the time when the ground is the warmest and the driest. It’s also the time of day when temperatures are usually the highest.

Many times, instead of stirring up the dust, the bird will ruffle up its feathers and just let the sun shine in.

The panting bird is taking a sunbath and its panting indicates a rising body temperature.

Birds take sun baths and dust baths for a variety of reasons.

They’re ridding themselves of unwanted parasites.

They are getting a dose of vitamin D when preen oil is ingested from their preen glands.

Preening of their feathers usually follows dust baths or sun baths. This performance is bizarre-looking and often triggers the question, “what’s wrong with that bird?”

However, these actions aren’t nearly as strange as another feather treatment birds appear to enjoy.

Imagine what it would be like if you were to lay your head, or another part of your body, on an ant hill.

That’s only half the performance.

Now you let the ants run through your hair or over your body.

This is what happens when a bird is “anting.”

This performance is fascinating. Birds spread their wings and tail over the anthill and as in sun or dust bathing, they tilt their heads back and appear to be in a state of ecstasy.

Sometimes, the bird will pick up an ant and crush it in its bill. Then it rubs the ant throughout its plumage.

Ants secrete a substance known as formic acid and that drives away the bugs and parasites that like to live on a bird’s body.

Birds can have favorite sunning spots and will return to them for their sunbathing activities.

This is similar to the way they visit your bird bath. They don’t drink just once a day but several times a day.

At the popular sunning spot in my yard, the ground slopes gently toward the south and west and it can get very warm in the afternoon. It’s the perfect spa set-up for birds in need of some feather care.

A tree near this area provides another need. It works as a preening perch.

Whether a bird is sunbathing or taking a water bath, they need to preen their feathers when they finish bathing.

Many of us are familiar with chickens taking dust baths but other birds also enjoy this feather treatment.

Like humans they also bathe in water or “lay out” in the sun.

However, when it comes to humans, anting is only a form of torture and is strictly “for the birds.”


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected].

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