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Friday, July 15, 2011

Why Do Birds Take Dust Baths?

“The other day we were outside, and noticed a bird had dug a hole in the ground and was acting like it was taking a bath in the dust. Why did it do that?”  The Newton Falls Public Library has an extensive collection of bird books and the staff is always happy to have an opportunity to examine them.

Doing a keyword search for “bird behavior” in the library’s online catalog, we found several books which looked promising. Bird Behavior by Robert Burton was the first one consulted. The table of contents included an entry titled Dusting, sunning and anting. Burton states that “The value of dusting is not clear . . .” [pg. 33]. The process involves scraping its feet and shuffling its wings until the ruffled feathers are filled with dust.

The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior had detailed information about bird behavior. Birds at Your Feeder: a guide to feeding habits, behavior, distribution, and abundance by Erica H. Dunn and Diane L. Tessaglia-Hymes had interesting statistical information about the birds seen at North American feeders. However, neither of the books seemed to have anything specific about dusting.

We next Google searched the question “Why do birds take dust baths?” We found the question asked and answered in an August 9, 1988 New York Times article. Ornithologist, Dr. Pete Myers, then senior vice president for science and sanctuaries at the National Audubon Society, said birds take dust baths ''to rid themselves of all sorts of parasites that crawl in and between their feathers.'' He compared it to using sand to rid your hands of “grit and grime.” The article also said that “some authorities have suggested that the purpose might be to keep the birds' plumage fluffy by removing excess moisture and oil.” Dr. Myers did not feel that there was convincing evidence to support this theory.

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