“water birds”

Usually when we think of “water birds”, ducks and geese come to mind.  But if you have a backyard bird bath, you might have noticed that Robins are the most enthusiastic bathers of all the birds that use the bird bath. The robins in my backyard monopolize the bird bath, and really deserve to be called “water birds”.

Baltimore Oriole

This wary male Baltimore Oriole scanned back and forth from the edge of the bird bath obviously wanting a drink or a dip, but he left as a much larger male Robin approached.

robin bathing-

Belly feathers already parted, a male Robin makes its approach for its first bath of the day.

robin bathing-

This is just the first stage of bathing — the head dunk and belly wetting stage. Full immersion follows.

robin bathing-

Stage 1 complete:  belly feathers are wet, but there are just a few water droplets on the back feathers.

robin bathing-

Stage 2 bathing — full immersion aided by wings throwing water up on the back of the bird.

Birds really do love bird baths, or even just shallow depressions that collect water along the side of a road, and most will get thoroughly wet at least once every couple of days.  But what does getting wet really accomplish?  Is it to rid themselves of skin parasites, or to cool off, or just to rinse the dirt off?

We know that birds spread oil from a gland at the base of the top of the tail onto their feathers while preening — this effectively waterproofs them, causing water to bead up on the surface.  But too much waterproofing oil on the feather surface isn’t a good thing either, because it attracts dirt and dust, and eventually clumps making feathers less pliable and less effective airfoils.  Hence, a good bath is needed to get those feathers back into shape.

robin bathing-

After several seconds of this continued thrashing in the water, those feathers must get pretty wet.

Wetting the feathers makes them more pliable, so that when birds preen themselves, they can more easily readjust the feathers to form the most efficient flying surface.  And there is proof that this works:  a study in 2009* demonstrated that Starlings prohibited from bathing were clumsier flyers (had more trouble avoiding obstacles in their path) than those that had access to bird baths regularly. Clumsy flying compromises predator avoidance, so bathing does seem to be linked to survival.

But I still don’t know why Robins seem to love the bird bath so much more than other birds…do you?

*Brilot, Asher, and Bateson.  2009.  Water bathing alters the speed-accuracy trade-off of escape flights in European Starlings.  Animal Behavior 78:801-807

12 thoughts on ““water birds”

  1. Is it because Robins get more dust and oil on their feathers because they are largely ground feeders? This is Dick’s guess.

  2. Loved this post. Here in the desert, I put an old pie plate with water on the ground for the birds and for the lizards. Lizards are really cute when they’re drinking. My friends think that off my rocker because of the things I find “cute.” Certain spiders, for example, and the Sonora groundsnake (Sonora semiannulata). This colorful groundsnake has a body that is not much greater in diameter than a grease pencil.

    Thanks for all the beautiful posts, Betsy

    • What a great idea, Betsy. I used to live in the desert (Nevada) many eons ago, and enjoyed how “tame” some of the lizards were. I never thought of providing water to them though — in fact, we always hear how reptiles are so water independent with their (metabolically) conservative lifestyle. So it just goes to show, you can’t believe everything you read. Thanks for writing.

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