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Nature Nut: Splish, splash is the word for birds

July 15, 2018
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Goldfinches, similar to this male, drink, but don’t bathe, at my bird bath.

I first noticed it outside in the snow when I bought the house I recently moved into.

But it was not until numerous people had seen it through the window while rummaging around at my estate sale that I realized it must be a keeper. When a few asked if it was for sale, I told them no. So, when the snow subsided, and I’d moved into the house, I set it out in the yard and filled it with water.

My wife, Linda, and I had gotten a heavy red ceramic bird bath many years ago for me to put out and take in each spring and fall, scrubbing the buildup of lime, and what I will call “crud,” each year. But I never noticed it attracting many birds, not like the old metal one I got with the winter purchase of my “as-is” house, which included hundreds of items besides the bird bath.

With spring arriving, I began seeing goldfinches daintily sitting on the edge watching their surroundings very carefully, but occasionally taking a quick sip before flying off. But it was the pair of robins that provided my most entertaining bird bath observations.

For a while in June, they would come each day, one at a time, sometimes the male first, sometimes the female. I could tell them apart as the male had a brighter, more solid orange breast, while the female’s was fainter and somewhat speckled.

Neither of them were quite as wary as the goldfinches, only looking around for a short time before jumping in. Although they might be in the water a mere five seconds, they splashed around enough to give themselves a good soaking. I haven’t seen them as much lately, although maybe because I have been gone when they came.

Many birds apparently like to bathe, with some in dryer climates using dust instead of water. However, interesting to me is that fact that other than the robins and goldfinches, along with an occasional house finch, none of the other birds, like cowbirds, chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, cardinals and mourning doves that come to my feeder, use the bath at all for water or bathing.

Although no one knows for sure, there is some evidence that bathing helps to maintain the feathers, which are very important to birds for insulation, waterproofing and, of course, flying.

Some studies even suggest bathed birds are able to fly better and elude predators.

Another theorizes starlings deprived of a bath were clumsier when flying through an obstacle course, although I am a bit skeptical of that science.

The authors of that theory even suggest that the unbathed birds are more cautious because they are aware that their ability to escape is impaired when not bathed. Again skeptical, but given that I think animals, including birds, are a lot smarter than we give them credit for, I won’t totally discount any of these theories.

A friend told me the birds don’t bathe in the fancy bath my wife and I had because it is too deep and needs rocks on the bottom. You’d think a “nature nut” would know that, so I have now put rocks in the bottom of that bath for comparison.

Other suggestions I have heard about, or read, include keeping it lower to the ground than most pedestal baths, having some type of tree or shrub cover nearby, keeping it clean, and considering a water heater to keep it open in winter when birds will drink, but probably not bathe if temps are subzero. Running or dripping water is also suggested as a real “turn-on” for birds.

So, until we get a more definitive answer from science on bird bathing, we will need to rely on common sense and keep those backyard bird baths full.

I will certainly look forward to hearing from many of you who have had more bird bath experiences and stories to tell than I have.

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