Watching a bird frantically flapping its wings in the sand and kicking up dust, an uninformed observer might find it strange and wonder why the bird is doing this. However, it does this for good reason.
Sand baths are an essential part of maintaining a bird's plumage, helping to keep feathers in optimal condition. The dust on the feathers absorbs excess oil to aid and prevent feathers from becoming oily or tangled. After bathing, feathers are clean and flexible, making flight more aerodynamic and efficient.
Dry skin, as well as other debris, can also be removed by over dusting. In addition, regular dusting can help suffocate or minimize dust mites, lice, and other parasites.
Sand baths are more common in arid environments and with warmer seasons, at which time water for bathing is scarce.
Ostrich bathing in sand. Image: Reid Park Zoo
When bathing, the bird begins by scraping its feet on the sand, making it brittle and fine. Then it lowers its chest and rolls, swaying and deepening in the shallow depression. Soon after, the bird spreads the dust all over its body. By doing this frantic movement, its feathers are fluffed up so that the dust reaches the feather easily.
Birds usually also rub their heads on the ground to cover their shorter cheek feathers. After a few moments of dry bathing, they pause to recover their energy and look around. However, the bathing movement can be repeated as many times as necessary. In this way, they can fly to the nearest branch and shake off their excess dust - but as not all birdscan fly, ostriches, for example, just go to a cooler, airier place.
Help dust the birds
Image: Alan Schmierer / Flickr / CC0 1.0
By adding a dust-bathing area to a bird-friendly landscape, you can encourage them to do this fun behavior. An area with a flowerbed section exposed to the sun, with a sand pile, gravel driveway or wooden box will also help.
Keep the dust contained by using stone enclosures or a decorative border. However, make sure that the bathing area is large enough to accommodate several birds at the same time. And it is necessary that the place has escape areas in case any predators appear.