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. The bird may also rub its head to the ground to coat the shorter feathers on the cheeks. After a few moments of this dry bathing, the bird will pause to catch its breath or look around, but the bathing motion may be repeated several times until the bird is sufficiently coated in dust. At that time, the bird may fly to a nearby perch or will first shake off some excess dust before perching. Preening or sunning often follows immediately after a dust bath as the bird continues its extensive grooming regimen.
When birders see a dusting bird, they may initially be concerned that the bird is injured, sick or under attack. Watch the bird’s motion carefully for several moments, however, to see that it finishes its dust bath, shakes off and returns to a calmer, more relaxed state.
Depending on the species, birds may take several dust baths each day, and often return to favored spots that already have popular wallows and suitable soil for dusting. Some birds dust alone, while others may visit larger wallows in flocks, with several birds dusting at once while others wait nearby for their turn to use the best dusting spots.
Help Dusting Birds
Adding a dust bath area to a bird-friendly landscape is a great way to make an area more attractive to birds and observe this entertaining behavior. If birds have already adopted a section of a sun-exposed flowerbed, dirt pile, gravel driveway or sandbox for regular dusting, the area can easily be preserved for their use. If no such area exists, build a dust bath by providing a dry, sunny area with fine-grained soil free from clumps, plants or rocks.
To keep the dirt and dust contained despite birds’ vigorous bathing, ring it with rocks or a decorative border, but be sure the bathing area is large enough to accommodate several birds at once. Breaking up dirt clumps and keeping the soil very dry is essential for it to be an attractive dust bath, and there should be shelter nearby for birds to retreat if they feel threatened. Prune shrubs or plants next to the dust bath that could conceal a predator right at the bath's edge, however, and take steps to discourage feral cats or other predators that could threaten dusting birds.
Taking regular dust baths is an important part of many birds’ preening regimens, and it can be a fascinating behavior to watch. Backyard birders who provide a suitable dusting area may witness many species taking advantage of the dust, and doing so is a great way to help meet birds’ unique needs and keep them healthy and well-groomed.