Why do birds bathe?

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American robins take a dip

One of those funny little mysteries of science is that we don’t really know exactly why birds bathe. Of course, like most species they need water for sustenance but do they really need to bathe in water to keep clean when other furry creatures keep their fur and feathers clean through grooming?

And why do they seem to enjoy it so much?

The most likely reason is feather maintenance. A bird’s feathers help it to stay waterproof and insulated and enable it to fly. There is some evidence to suggest that birds who have not had access to a bath in a while are clumsy fliers and are therefore easier prey. Regular bathing also helps birds to keep on top of parasites and clean off dirt and bacteria that affect the quality of their feathers. Birds regrow their feathers every year, and there is a marked difference in fresh feathers and old, tired ones.

Birds are also highly intelligent and social creatures and it’s not unusual to see groups of sparrows still bathing long after they have clearly got themselves clean. It’s instinctual behaviour to clean but perhaps the obvious enjoyment (and the lack of territorial aggressive behaviour at the bathtub) is an indicator of their intelligence.

Birds prefer shallow baths because submerging themselves fully in water would prevent them from flying properly – wet feathers are heavy feathers. They also splash around a lot because most garden birds are lightweight and have hollow bones so they stay on the surface.

Thinking of purchasing a bird bath for your feathered visitors? Make sure you take into consideration the following:

  1. Depth of water. It should be no more than 2 to 3 inches deep in the middle.
  2. Add stones and branches so they birds can stand on them if they just want to take a drink
  3. Position your bird bath near trees – it will provide shade to keep the water cool
  4. Keep it warm in winter. If you don’t want to pay for an outdoor heater to prevent your bird bath from freezing over in winter (who would?) you can just refresh the water every day.

The RSPB offer a really good guide to making your own homemade bird bath for your garden at little cost and a bit of fun:

https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/give-nature-a-home-in-your-garden/garden-activities/maketheperfectbirdbath/

How to help wildlife in winter

Dramatic headlines at the Daily Express suggest we are in for an awfully cold winter. It’s long overdue after several years of mild winters and hot summers. Freezing air is set to sweep in from the North Pole, bringing the UK four solid months of total whiteout.

It probably won’t be that bad in the end.  However, it will still be cold enough for wildlife. So how can we look out for our furry friends of the forest this winter?

Put out food.

  • Birds will appreciate their usual seed mix, with the valuable addition of an extra feeder for fat balls.
  • Squirrels don’t hibernate but instead rely on caches full of nuts that they’ve been busy collecting and hiding. Leave out nuts for them, as well as chopped fruit.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have badgers nearby that visit your garden, you might consider leaving them some leftover meat and cheese, as well as peanuts and fruits. They can’t always access earthworms when the ground is frozen and this is their favourite meal.
  • Despite a bad rep, foxes play a vital role in the ecosystem by predating rodents and rabbits, keeping those populations under control. They will happily snaffle up your leftover meat, bread and other scraps.

Melt a hole in your pond.

  • Animals need water and cannot get at it if it’s frozen. But don’t smash ice as this can frighten the wildlife within it; instead, place a saucepan of hot water on top to gently melt a hole.

Let your garden get messy.

  • It’s a horrible chore to sweep up all those beautiful orange leaves in autumn, so don’t bother yourself too much. Leave an area of your garden to go wild so that animals can hide and nest in it. Leaf mould is broken down by earthworms and feeds the soil underneath, as well as protecting it from winter weather. Chose an area of your garden you don’t mind losing – leaf mulch can bleach a lawn – or pile up leaves in a heap as compost.

Let your ivy flower.

  • Ivy flowers provide nectar to butterflies and bees, and as the berries ripen the ivy then provides food for birds. Overwintering insects and mammals even hide in the tangled ivy.

Don’t cut back hedges with berries.

  • Hedges, particularly hawthorn, can provide a much-needed source of food for robins, as well as some birds who migrate from Scandinavia to the UK for winter.

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