Birds & Birding

Splish, Splash: Why Do Birds Take Baths?

March 9, 2015

UPDATED:

July 5, 2020

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wet robin in a bath
An American robin enjoying a bath. © WC Photography / Flickr

What does science tell us about the importance of a good bath to a bird?

The answer: surprisingly little!

A study published in 2009 stated it plainly: “Birds of most species regularly bathe in water, but the function of this behavior is unknown” 1.

This post is about the cool green science of bird baths: what we know and intriguing areas of inquiry for future research.

Rub-a-Dub-Dub, Many Birds in the Tub

Despite the lack of knowledge about the function and importance of baths to birds, we all know that birds (like the rest of us) love having water around for bathing and drinking.

When working with migrant birds in the Yucatan Peninsula, I first began to understand how seriously birds take the business of bathing. We were studying warblers that were typically territorial. These birds frequently engaged in threat postures and even in fights to enforce the boundaries between their exclusive home ranges at our mangrove study sites.

But at a communal bird bath, there was a nightly truce.

yellow bird splashing in water
A goldfinch bathing. © Jason Rosenberg / Flickr

Each evening at dusk, in a special spot in the mangroves where a freshwater spring bubbled up from the ground, numerous American redstarts, northern parulas, magnolia warblers, common yellowthroats and yellow warblers took turns bathing.

One by one, they shared this little oasis before going to roost for the night.

Seeing territorial warblers calmly taking turns for a bath tells us that for a bird, having access to water for bathing is worth checking one’s combative tendencies – at least for a few minutes.

five birds splashing in a birdbath
European starlings bathing. © kthtrnr / Flickr

Why Birds Take Baths

So, what’s so important about a bath?

The number of relevant scientific articles can be counted on one hand. There are very basic descriptions of the mechanics of bird bathing in North American2 and Australian birds3, an experimental examination of wetting and drying of disembodied feathers4, and a recent pair of studies that experimentally deprived captive starlings of bath water 5,1.

Although the functions of bird bathing aren’t clearly known at this point, these studies suggest that bathing plays an important role in feather maintenance.

Feathers are a bird’s lifeline: they insulate, waterproof and, of course, provide the power of flight.

Feathers get replaced once or twice a year. In the interim, they need to be kept in good condition. The sun, feather-munching mites, bacteria and gradual wear take a toll on feathers. A set of year-old flight feathers look like they’ve been through the ringer: they are frayed and dull.

Photo: © Larry Niles
Photo: © Larry Niles

A good bath may keep those precious feathers in the best condition possible for as long as possible.

Two recent studies on captive starlings have progressed our understanding a bit further. In one paper, Brilot and colleagues hypothesized that depriving a bird of a bath would result in more disheveled feathers and translate into poorer flight performance.

They tested a group of freshly-bathed starlings and a group that had been deprived of a bath for three hours prior to the experiment. The starlings deprived of a bath were clumsier when flying through an obstacle course made of vertically-hung strings, bumping into more strings as they flew.

In their second paper on starlings, the research team examined whether the bath-deprived starlings knew they were clumsier. They did this by presenting bathed and unbathed groups of birds with recordings of starling predator alarm calls – and delicious meal worms – at the same time.

The experiment indicated that birds with access to bath water were more willing to let their guard down and feed, despite the recorded call signaling the presence of a predator. The authors suggest that the unbathed birds were more cautious because they were aware that their ability to escape was impaired.

This work tells us that, beyond preserving feathers over the long term, bathing even makes a bird a more agile flier and more adept at escaping predators in the short term.

These studies are helpful, but the function of bathing still eludes us.

How does it make these birds better fliers? Does it help realign the tiny barbs that hold feathers together? Does it help distribute protective oils? Does it improve feather performance in some other way?

This all leaves me wondering about those birds in the Yucatan. Our research was focused on revealing differences in habitat quality among individuals, mainly by measuring the food resources of the birds. We reasoned that more food equaled birds in better condition with a better chance of survival.

But maybe we were ignoring another important aspect of habitat quality – access to bathing water. We see from the starling work that being deprived of a bath could make an unbathed bird easier to catch, so baths might play a role in survival too.

Until we get an answer from science, we will need to rely on common sense and keep those backyard bird baths full.

A bathing northern cardinal. © John Brighenti / Flickr

Preparing Your Backyard Bird Bath

Many of us with bird feeders also have a bird bath to go along with it. Even in the coldest months of the year, I’ve found that birds are eager to take baths.

I recently poured a warm tea kettle of water into my frozen bird bath and there was an instant scrum as the cardinals and white-throated sparrows jockeyed for position around the bath.

A more sophisticated approach to maintaining a bird bath in winter is to use a bird bath heater.

When warmer times come around, a water mister can enhance the backyard bird bathing experience.

Misters keep water fresh and brings a lot more attention to the bird bath. They are a great bird attractor during the spring and summer when people typically aren’t feeding birds.

Although it would be nice to know the exact functions of bird bathing, a lack of scientific knowledge won’t ever get in the way of a good bath.

Joe Smith

Joe Smith, PhD, explores the lives of the birds around us by sharing insights from scientific research. As an ecologist for a New Jersey-based conservation services company, he helps to restore coastal ecosystems and the migratory birds that depend on them. Joe lives in the birding hotspot of Cape May, NJ and has done field research with birds throughout the U.S. and Latin America. He writes about nature in his backyard at www.smithjam.com. More from Joe

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41 comments

  1. Frank, thanks for your comment. Regularly scrubbing and replacing water in bird baths eliminates mosquito breeding potential.

    1. I have read that you must change your bird bath water every 3 days to keep down mosquitos because of their life cycle. I keep an old dish scrub brush nearby to assist in the cleaning.

  2. As you’ve described it, I’d say that the experiment demonstrates a higher level of anxiety but that may or may not be from an awareness of increased vulnerability. Bathing may simply reduce stress/anxiety, much like a shower can for a human. A step further, that bathed birds are less clumsy may be because bathing is invigorating and have nothing to do with feather condition. Spose I should try and read the published article.
    Re mosquitos: bird baths and other water holders if cleaned out before the mozzies can complete their cycle make great traps to reduce the total mozzie population.

  3. My first thought was that birds have mites and a bath would wash those terrible little biting creatures off, so they can get a good nights sleep. I have chickens and the birds come into their pen to “barrow” some chicken food. They leave mites behind that my chickens get. My girls and roosters hate water on their feathers, but take a dust bath to calm down and reduce the mites. A little bit of fire place ash in the dust/dirt aids in the reduction of their mites.

    1. Not only chickens like sand baths.
      After observing backyard birds “bathing” in sand, I had a permanent sand bath installed. The birds love it.

    1. Nice video! I leave a tiny amount of water to drip from my hose and a puddle develops around the base of the tree. Many birds fly in and bath!

      1. cool video. i notice you have a solar water wiggler. does it work well and do you recommend it? thanks!

  4. Why do research on bird bathing. It is a natural thing that they do and to deprive some of the birds from bathing is inhumane. Leave them alone and let them enjoy being birds. Unless I can get a good reason for this research, I hope my donation dollars are not going towards this research.

  5. I would like to know how birds manage to fly at all in northern climes where they have no access to bath water for months on end. When major tributaries like the Hudson River are completely covered with ice, the smaller ponds and puddles favored by birds will surely be frozen as well. How does the starling study explain that?

  6. I would assume that another reason for bathing has to do with nesting. Birds can regulate the amount of humidity on their clutch of eggs by taking a bath. Some birds have specialized breast feathers that absorb water i.e. the Sandgrouse. I would also think it would be refreshen for a bird to bath after taken a turn at sitting on eggs.

  7. Baths do wonders for feather quality. My wife’s parrot becomes more and more disheveled, the longer it’s been since his latest bath. Flight feathers (wing and tail) fare the worst. A bath restores the feathers almost completely.

  8. I have several bird baths of varying sizes and depths in strategic spots in my yard, and different birds favor different baths. I love watching them bathe, and the pitter patter of their splashing never fails to make me grin. I always thought there were several reasons for bathing:

    1. Get clean.
    2. Cool off.
    3. Dislodge some parasites.
    4. Have fun. (They sure look like they’re having fun, especially the robins.)

    I agree with other commenters that changing the water in the bath daily keeps mosquitoes out of the equation. It’s also better for the birds. They do seem to enjoy the water more when it’s clean.

  9. A flock of finches just used our bird baths. How do birds know where they are? It seems like they tell each other because we get more and more. Titmouses, chickadees, cardinals, blue birds, bluejays, Carolina wrens, and more.

  10. I;ve collection of videos taken from my house. ‘LET THE BIRDS COME TO YOUR HOUSE” is the title of my project. I ‘ ve to make a documentary on the subject “birds bath’ I think your valuable contribution if any as literature on the subject specified .. Sir?

  11. Brids bathe to clean wings for the same reason planes are de-iced in winter, to remove drag on the wings?
    It’s also possible that dirt buildup on planes also affect air flow for bulliency.

  12. Local murray magpies (small) regularly come to our ceramic bird bath, fluttering around and raising wings, and today in Spring a dove actually sat in the middle of same. More a small bird thing.
    Adelaide Australia. Note the bird bath is in a small protected courtyard garden. But they do sense when I watch and clear off.

  13. Nice article! If we are to keep our birdbaths full, we need to fill (two baths) approximately every 2-3 hours in the summer. I live in Metro Detroit. We have limited the birds to having only 3 refills of water each day! There are usually 3-12 birds in each bath at any given moment. Mourning Doves are the last of the day, the circle the baths and face out towards the yard and stay until dusk. I keep a birdbath with a heater in the winter also.

  14. Sir,my master asking me one question,is that,.
    Which bird takes bath after eating meat ?
    Will u Pls let me know.

  15. The first time I let my lovebird out of his cage he went right to my aquarium and jumped in! I was worried, but he got right out on his own and now bathes in there regularly!

  16. Looking for a small bubbler for our birdbath. Is there such a thing?

    1. Hi Janet, Thank you for the question! I can’t recommend anything specific, but I suggest searching with terms like “bird bath fountain pump.”

  17. We were puzzled to see small birds bathing in a plastic tray in our UK garden, even though its very cold and there is snow on the ground. Now we understand better why birds need water and that it’s not just for drinking, so we’ll take care that they always have a supply this winter/

  18. Wonderful! Thank you, Celeste W. Menlo Park, CA
    I have a place in my yard for birds to eat and bathe, they just love it.
    Many times the same bird takes three baths in a row. It is amazing how much they seem to love their baths.

  19. What can I use to remove the bird oil off my window glass? Bird bath close to same and they splash a lot.

  20. I have often observed double barred finches, honeyeaters and wrens in Australia will come down for a bath and drink approximately every 2 hours. If the days are very hot (35C) the birds will come more often with the finches and wrens just sit in the water and interact socially. This may last for 4-5 minutes before the group start to move into the surrounding shrubbery to preen their feathers.
    The bird baths consist of two 400mm glazed terracotta pot saucers, one green and one brown and third light brown plastic saucer. The finches prefer the green saucer and secondly the brown one. The wrens prefer the brown saucer and the honeyeaters the plastic one.
    It appears the colour is important to each of the 3 species and it is common to see 10 or 20 finches, 3 male wrens and there 6 females all in at the same time.

  21. Here is something that might add to the discussion of birds bathing. We are here in south-west Florida, and have a number of feeders and one pedestal bird bath. Unfortunately, the Common Grackles are constant visitors. Until the past week they’ve had little interest in the bath except the occasional drink. For the past week we’ve had flocks of American Robins coming to our yard and the love drinking and bathing in the bird bath. Well, when the Robins arrive each mid-afternoon, the Grackles are quick to hog the bird bath, and suddenly each and every Grackle takes a long bath, while the Robins sit and wait on the ground around the bird bath. Occasionally, the Robins will get their turn, but the Grackles are relentless. When the Robins aren’t there, not one Grackle takes a bath! We would love to know what this is all about.

  22. Thank you for your information. I have 4 different bird feeders out :regular seed mix, woodpecker blocks, finch block, and a block with mealy worms ( boy is that a favorite). Also, over the years I have 2 bird baths out. I have noticed that the robins, especially prefer to use one for bathing in. So, I change the water 3 times a day for them. Those little fellows sure get dirty. This gives me fun while I am in the kitchen ( French doors). So far over the years, I have found that we have at least 40-45 different species here in rural Indiana. I keep my National Audubon Society Field Guide to Birds ( Eastern region) to check out when a bird I don’t recognize shows up. Over the years, I have noticed that the Chipping Sparrows and Nuthatches do recognize me and will peck at the doors if the big wild seed feeder gets low. It has gotten to the point where they no longer are afraid of me, especially those two species and I can sit about 5 feet from the feeders. In the meantime, take care and stay safe during this time in our history. We came here as refugees after WWII, 1953. So obviously I am a senior citizen with time on my hands , as they say . Thanks again for your site.

  23. Hi, I’ve had bird bathes for years. I also do bird taxidermy , often from road kill. Many of the birds I get have very fouled vents from faeces, which would affect flight ability. I have noticed and have videos of birds often seeming to throw themselves into deep water and pull out with only the vent area hitting the water. I have video of birds appearing to encourage their young into this same practice. I believe a clean vent keeps the bird flying better. Bathing is not just for fun but they do seem to enjoy it

  24. I bought a white bird bath because I feed birds & have lots in yard. But the birds are not using it . ??
    Is it because the color is white ?

  25. Thank you so much for sharing this video of the “wave bathers”. I get such immense joy when a single robin takes a bath in my garden so seeing this was very uplifting. Thank you.