The ancient dust bath of Chuckatuck

Published 9:52 pm Tuesday, June 7, 2016

By Susan and Biff Andrews

To heck with an apple a day — most of us need a shower a day, psychologically if not hygienically. Whether at night to sleep clean after a sweaty day or first thing in the morning to prepare for the coming day’s rigors, bathing is a necessity.

In the summer, there may be three showers and three shirts a day.

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So, too, for birds — regularly, if not daily.

Birds bathe to clean feathers and remove parasites. After splashing around for a while, they perch in a sunny location to fluff their feathers and then preen each feather, adding a protective coating of oil from a gland at the base of their tails.

The more common way for birds to bathe is in water — usually a puddle, pond or shoreline of a stream.

You can help them out by providing a birdbath. You need a source of water for them on your property, anyway. The best type is not necessarily the old standby raised heavy concrete. A shallow bowl or a heavy plastic garbage can lid set into the ground works best. If you can rig up a source of dripping water, even better.

A flat stone at the center will add stability and an even shallower place for smaller birds to stand. It should be in shade, near cover, and surrounded by ferns or other plantings. If you’re going to view it regularly, raise it two or three feet, but still keep plantings around it. You need to be able to hose it out weekly.

For purists, bird stores make specially dedicated soaps just for birdbaths, but hose it out once a week, anyway. The old cement ones are the hardest to clean.

But that’s not the only way birds bathe. They also take dust baths, which is the real reason for this article. Elephants take dust baths, as do buffalo and horses and cats and rabbits and dogs and squirrels. So why not birds?

We recently noticed a squirrel digging violently into some really dry dirt under a bench in our front yard where no rain reaches. After digging, the squirrel would dive into it and roll and shake all over. That we had seen before.

But immediately after the squirrel left, a mockingbird replaced him and mimicked his every move. So, in the 21st century, we just Googled for an answer to the mystery.

Dust bathing is defined as “the act of grooming while rolling around in dust and sand with the purpose of cleaning feathers and removing parasites.” It is a maintenance behavior.

Birds cower close to the ground, vigorously wriggling their bodies and flapping their wings. The dust gets between feathers and skin. The bath is followed by further shaking and perhaps preening by the bill.

We have a fish pond. We have an old cement birdbath that has a large fern filling it. We have two birdbaths, one at ground level and one raised a foot or two. But we were not aware we had a shared dust bath area as well.

Who knew?

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at