bird parasites, birds preening, birds sunbathing, birds sunning, blackbird, dunnock, garden birds, Robin, why do birds sunbathe, Wren
“The perfect spot for sunbathing, in a peaceful woodland edge location, offers privacy and safety in which to relax or indulge in some leisurely
grooming preening. No charge for use of facilities”.
This summer this ideal location, set conveniently for me just a few metres from my kitchen and bedroom windows, has been a popular spot with some of the local birds, particularly some of the younger ones.They come to make the most of this sheltered sun-trap to sunbathe, also known as ‘sunning’ in application to birds. Sunning birds may become so absorbed in the activity that they are easily approached, which can make them vulnerable to predators. They are safer here; there is no easy access to this spot from any angle, although a savvy Sparrowhawk may possibly be able to make a strike if it got its timing right so as not to cast a shadow.
Most commonly we see Blackbirds and sometimes Robins sunning in gardens , but other species indulge too in slightly different ways.
To begin sunning, birds orient themselves to expose the maximum amount of their plumage to the sun. The classic sunning posture is thus: head and body feathers are fluffed up and out and depending on available space and/or sense of security felt, one or both wings are held out from the body with feathers spread; the tail is sometimes fanned out too. The bird may keep the same position throughout a sunning session, or it may change positions to expose different parts of its body to the sun.
Sunning is often a precursor to preening, vital to a bird’s feather maintenance, and in this instance it is thought this has two effects; one is that the sun’s heat helps to spread preening oil across the feathers. The other is that it drives out parasites from within the plumage that can then be more easily dislodged as the bird preens.
Sunning and Preening demonstrated by a Dunnock
I’m fairly sure this session was more concerned with pest control than anything else.
Firstly, adopt the sunning pose: fluff out feathers and spread tail and wing feathers. Well, alright just the tail feathers will do for now.
Secondly, begin preening with any particularly itchy spots caused by unwelcome hitchhikers.
Pay attention to armpits
Some areas such as the head and around the eyes and bill can only be serviced by extending and lifting the leg and having a good old scratch.
It helps to have a flexible neck.
That will have to do for now, it’s getting a bit shady here.Time to go.
The young Robin in the following sequence of images seems to be similarly afflicted with ‘lumps’ apparent on its neck.
The head and neck are areas birds are unable to reach with their bills and have to scratch with a foot.
The other side needs attention too.
It looks as though the bird’s frantic scratching has created a bald spot. And is that another lump under its eye?
During sunning sessions birds often have their bills open. This is because the warmth of the sun raises their body temperature and as they can’t release heat by perspiration, they have to regulate it some other way, so will gape and sometimes pant in order to lose heat.
To sum up, no-one knows for certain the reasons birds sunbathe, although several theories have been proposed.
- To maintain the bird’s feathers in good condition. Exactly how sunning assists with this is not known, despite being widely studied. All birds have a gland on the rump, called an oil gland. The ‘preen-oil’ that this gland produces helps to keep the feathers flexible and hygienic. As preening usually occurs directly after sunning, it has been suggested that the sun affects the preen-oil in the feathers in some beneficial manner, or that it helps to synthesize the Vitamin D and helping to regulate it’s temperature.
- The heat from the sun may stimulate activity in parasites within the feathers, making them more accessible when the bird starts to preen.
- Birds also make use of the sun’s heat to increase their body temperature or prevent heat loss. This form of ‘sunning’ is also used when the bird dries itself after bathing.
- They do it simply because they enjoy it.
Thank you Pat, I learnt quite a bit myself whilst researching this post and also find it fascinating. It’s good to be able to watch and photograph birds ‘sunbathing’ and have some inkling about what they are doing and why.
Patricia Tilton said:
Learned something knew. I didn’t realize that birds has sunning postures. Fascinating. Love your pictures!
Thank you kindly Paul. You’re lucky to have had a visit from a Greenfinch – it’s quite alarming how they’ve gone from being a common sight in gardens isn’t it? I see very few here, only really around the houses at the bottom of the Little Orme and only now and again. I hope they’ve not all succumbed to that horrible Trichomonosis disease.
Paul Seligman said:
Nice! I must find time to process some of my baby bird pics. A young greenfinch a few days ago week was a complete surprise as no adults have been seen or heard for many months, and they have become unusual, bordering on rare, around me (Fairwater, Cardiff).
Thank you, but these opportunities came to me. All I had to do was be aware of what was happening and grab my camera! I can number on my fingers the good shots I’ve taken of wild birds so far this year, so you are not alone in that. Aah, beautiful bee-eaters, how I miss them! They must be getting ready to return to Africa soon. And you are right about different forms of expression; poets and writers were capturing evocative and accurate images of wildlife and landscapes long before cameras were.
This is a most amazing collection of bird behaviour shots. Really wish I could get closer to the wild ones her. But the bee eaters have just been! Shots are poor but there are different ‘expressions’.
I was watching a blackbird doing this last week and, though I’ve read a bit about the subject before, I still wonder about the reasons. So, your post was very timely, Theresa. thank you. 🙂
The true reasons for this particular behaviour are still baffling the experts, so nature can hold on to another of her mysteries for a while yet, I think. Some of the speculations make good sense though, and it goes to show how well tuned to their environment birds are – reacting instinctively to the elements for help with their ailments & needs.
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Ruth Livingstone said:
We have a blackbird that regularly sunbathes on our back lawn. (Always makes me nervous for fear a cat will get it!) I did wonder why they did it. A mystery still.
Apparently Blackbirds are the most numerous proponants of the sunning habit and I think the suggestion that ‘they do it because they enjoy it’ is probably why many of them do have favoured spots in some gardens. Having watched birds here do it this year I also believe they do it for some relief from parasites, poor things. But it will probably remain one of life’s mysteries until we learn to speak ‘bird’!