Dear Bird Folks,
Several different species of woodpeckers regularly come to the feeders in our yard. We have Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, plus red-bellies and flickers. However, I’ve never seen a single one of them use our birdbath. Other birds bathe frequently, but not woodpeckers. Do they ever take baths?
– Jennifer, Eastham, MA
A few years ago I wrote a book entitled, Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Headaches? It was a huge hit and became the best selling book of all time, with that exact title. Since then, I have been thinking about writing a sequel, but I couldn’t come up with a good name for it…until now. Why Don’t Woodpeckers Take Baths? is perfect. It could lead to a whole series of books. There could be Why Don’t Woodpeckers Watch TV?, followed by Why Don’t Woodpeckers Use Public Transportation? and Why Don’t Woodpeckers Shop at the GAP? Not only are these great titles, but I think people everywhere really want to know the answers. Forget The Hardy Boys and those silly vampire books; woodpecker mania is about the sweep to country, thanks to you.
When it comes to bathing, not all birds behave the same. Just as it is with people, some birds are constantly washing themselves while others don’t do it nearly as much as we wish they would. Take robins, for example. There isn’t a birdbath anywhere that they won’t stop and use. I don’t know what robins did in a former life, but there is clearly something bad they are trying to wash away. Starlings must have a bit of Japanese culture in them because the entire flock often bathes at the same time. But unlike the Japanese, a starling communal bath isn’t a peaceful, relaxing affair. When a flock of starlings hit a birdbath, water splashes everywhere, looking like a blender with the cover off.
Birds of prey are more human-like in their bathing habits. Hawks will often walk into a pool of water and just soak for a few minutes before getting on with the actual washing. Some of the more sophisticated hawks will light a few candles, put on soft music and pour a glass of wine before they bathe, but those birds are mostly from Europe. Swallows and swifts do just the opposite. They have no time in their busy schedule to be floating around in water, so they bathe on the wing. Swallows will skim over a pond, flying just low enough to allow the water to splash on them as they go. Other birds seem to have a touch of hydrophobia. They want to take a bath but hate getting into the water. Instead, they will take a “leaf bath.” No, they don’t roll around in a big pile of leaves. (That behavior is exclusive to ten-year-old children.) After a storm, or when there is a lot of morning dew, many warblers will flutter in wet foliage and bathe that way. Other birds are content to let the bath come to them. If it rains, they’ll readily take advantage of the falling water to clean themselves. If it doesn’t rain, they don’t get cleaned, just like ten-year-old children.
Woodpeckers probably use a combination of the above methods to maintain their feathers. If you punch up YouTube on your computer, you should find several video clips of downies and flickers, as well as other woodpeckers, splashing in birdbaths. (There’s also a fun clip of Woody Woodpecker trying to fish a dime out of a bathtub drain. It has nothing to do with your question, but you should watch it anyway.) Woodpeckers will not only use birdbaths, but they will also take the aforementioned rain baths; in the winter they will take snow baths, which are exactly as the name implies.
Woodpeckers have also been known to take dust baths. It’s seems like a major contradiction for birds to clean themselves by rolling around in dirt, but they do it. Experts aren’t sure what the birds gain from fluffing in filth, but their best guess is that it has something to do with parasite control. It is thought that the fine dust blocks the parasites’ breathing holes, which forces them to drop off the bird. Hmm. I’m going to have to try that. I’ll let you know how it works.
No matter which type of bath the woodpeckers participate in, their next move is always the same. They find a quiet spot where they can do some serious preening. During preening the birds physically remove any mites or parasites. They also repair any damaged feathers by “zipping” them up again. The most important thing they do during preening is apply oil to their feathers. The birds squeeze a bit of oil from their oil gland and apply it to their feathers. It once was thought that the oil provided waterproofing, but for the most part the oil is a conditioner that prevents the feathers from becoming dry and brittle, or from getting split ends.
After further review, I don’t think I can call my next book Why Don’t Woodpeckers Take Baths?, Jennifer. They probably bathe more than you realize. I’d like to write more on this subject, but I want to get back to watching that Woody Woodpecker clip on YouTube. I can’t wait to see if he finally gets the dime out of the tub drain. It’s exciting stuff.