One of those funny little mysteries of science is that we don’t really know exactly why birds bathe. Of course, like most species they need water for sustenance but do they really need to bathe in water to keep clean when other furry creatures keep their fur and feathers clean through grooming?
And why do they seem to enjoy it so much?
The most likely reason is feather maintenance. A bird’s feathers help it to stay waterproof and insulated and enable it to fly. There is some evidence to suggest that birds who have not had access to a bath in a while are clumsy fliers and are therefore easier prey. Regular bathing also helps birds to keep on top of parasites and clean off dirt and bacteria that affect the quality of their feathers. Birds regrow their feathers every year, and there is a marked difference in fresh feathers and old, tired ones.
Birds are also highly intelligent and social creatures and it’s not unusual to see groups of sparrows still bathing long after they have clearly got themselves clean. It’s instinctual behaviour to clean but perhaps the obvious enjoyment (and the lack of territorial aggressive behaviour at the bathtub) is an indicator of their intelligence.
Birds prefer shallow baths because submerging themselves fully in water would prevent them from flying properly – wet feathers are heavy feathers. They also splash around a lot because most garden birds are lightweight and have hollow bones so they stay on the surface.
Thinking of purchasing a bird bath for your feathered visitors? Make sure you take into consideration the following:
- Depth of water. It should be no more than 2 to 3 inches deep in the middle.
- Add stones and branches so they birds can stand on them if they just want to take a drink
- Position your bird bath near trees – it will provide shade to keep the water cool
- Keep it warm in winter. If you don’t want to pay for an outdoor heater to prevent your bird bath from freezing over in winter (who would?) you can just refresh the water every day.
The RSPB offer a really good guide to making your own homemade bird bath for your garden at little cost and a bit of fun: