Birders who see a bird flapping frantically in the dirt may at first be startled or alarmed at the erratic motion, crazy posture and cloud of dust the bird is raising. The bird is simply taking a dust bath, however, and is not in distress in any way. But why do birds do this, and how can you encourage dust bathing in your backyard?
Why Birds Take Dust Baths
Dust baths, also called dusting or sand bathing, are part of a bird’s preening and plumage maintenance that keeps feathers in top condition. The dust that is worked into the bird’s feathers will absorb excess oil to help keep the feathers from becoming greasy or matted. The oil-soaked dust is then shed easily to keep the plumage clean and flexible for more aerodynamic flight and efficient insulation. Dry skin and other debris can also be removed with excess dust, and regular dusting may help smother or minimize lice, feather mites and other parasites.
Hundreds of bird species have been recorded as dusting, though the frequency of the habit varies for each species, the time of year and the local climate conditions.
Sparrows of many types are some of the most frequent dusters, as are game birds including California quail, ring-necked pheasants, helmeted guineafowl and wild turkeys. Thrushes, thrashers, larks and wrens take regular dust baths as well. Birds that live in arid regions are commonly seen dust bathing. Even some raptors, including different species of kestrels, use dust bathing for part of their preening.
How Birds Dust
Birds take dust baths more frequently in arid habitats and during hotter seasons when water for bathing may be scarce. Dusting can occur anywhere and at any time, however, when a bird feels it is necessary to keep its feathers well groomed and when a suitable patch of dust or dry dirt is nearby.
To take a dust bath, a bird begins by scraping their feet in dry, fine, crumbly dirt or sand to create a wallow. Lowering the breast to the ground and rolling, swaying or rocking may deepen the shallow depression. The bird will flip its wings vigorously, similar to bathing in water, to spread dust over the entire body. During this frantic motion, the feathers may be fluffed and the tail spread so the dust can reach the skin more easily…