I often see our Button Quail in the Haven at the Museum enjoying a long luxurious dust bath, rolling around on the ground, kicking their legs and flapping their wings to create their own personal dust storm. And on numerous occasions I have gone rushing upstairs in response to an urgent call from one of the Visitor Services team who have reported that there is 'something wrong' with one of the quail, only to find it sprawled out with legs akimbo, enjoying a blissful sunbathing session. I also remember being quite fascinated, when living in Africa, the first time I saw a Cape Turtle Dove sprawled out on the ground with wings spread, allowing ants to run all over its feathers. Just like when we visit a spa, it appears there are numerous skin treatments available for our avian friends.
I was sitting outside having lunch by the pond when this little White-crowned Sparrow flew down near me and proceeded to partake in some very enthusiastic ablutions and for once I actually had my camera to hand.
So why all this work on the beauty regime? Well, of course, it really has nothing to do with beauty and everything to do with survival, as with most things in the life of an organism. As we all know, one of the key characteristics that make a bird a bird, are its feathers and in order for the feathers to perform all the tasks they are designed for they must be kept in prime condition. In dust bathing the dust is thought to absorb excess preen oil and remove dry skin, lice, etc. When sun bathing the sun is thought to straighten the birds feathers and help the preen oil to spread through the feathers. Some ornithologists have suggested that it may also draw parasites to the surface where the bird can remove them or that the ultraviolet light in the sunlight converts chemicals in the preen oil into Vitamin D. As for the, what we see as somewhat bizarre habit of ant bathing, the popular thought is that the formic acid that the ants release may kill feather lice. The water bath helps in maintaining the quality of birds feathers, keeping them clean, removing dust, dander, loose feathers and debris from new feathers, moistening the skin, maintaining the insulation properties of their feathers and much more.
And when all the bathing is done, the long careful process of preening must begin. So whilst mankind has made a whole industry out of preening, our feathered friends do it because their very lives depend upon it! Bathing and preening are both done to care for the feathers, because if feathers become damaged, dirty or oily, the feather alignment will become affected and possibly cause the bird not to fly well. It could also affect escape from predators or search for food. The bird also becomes susceptible to extremes in temperature, especially the cold weather, because it cannot fluff up its feathers to keep warm.
Photo Credits - CJT
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