I’ll never forget the experience of Mikiko and his bath. He was a hospital rescue, a Japanese Quail with no verifiable background. Most likely, he was being raised for food, for eggs, for hunting or for dog training, and the lucky little guy escaped into the arms of a good samaritan.
I had custody of Mikiko, awaiting his transport to an aviary on the coast. Yes, Mikiko was headed for retirement in paradise. He’d been in the hard confines of a cage, unable to exercise his quailish inclinations. Since I knew nothing about Japanese Quail at the time, his life in my care was a series of piece meal discoveries and incessant Googling.
One day, not long into his residency, I approached Mikiko with the sacred saucer: a plastic plant saucer filled with sand and peat. I’d read that quail might enjoy a dust bath now and then. Might? I placed it in a corner of his huge enclosure. He saw what was happening . . . and he darted for the dirt. Within minutes, I shot this photo of Mikiko splayed across his dust bath, a place he’d spend most of his days thereafter. Quail might like dust baths.
All birds love their baths. That happiness is tempered by the fact that most bathing birds are easy prey — and many baths are out in the open. So bathing time is also a red-level alert period as birds scan their environment, all the while just trying to have a nice wash up.
Why Birds Preen For Hours on End
Cleaning and preening is actually more important for birds than it is for us. The integrity of their feathers depends on cleanliness. And feathers must be properly aligned for insulation and performance. It’s why even small patches of oil are so devastating to water birds. The tight weave and perfect placement of feathers is what protects birds like a wet suit. A spot of oil acts like a hole in that wet suit.
Some birds choose water, some choose dust, often dependent on the environment in which they live. Both water and dust help clear the detritus which encumbers feather performance. It’s believed that dust baths and post-bath sunning also help keep feather parasites at bay.
After the bath, preening is an exercise in precise placement and rearrangement. Birds gently pull at feather barbs with their beaks, making sure all the pieces lay properly. Most birds also have a preening gland at the base of their tail which they use to spread oil on the feathers, keeping them flexible and waterproof. (When I had temporary custody of Gidget, another rescued quail, I posted a rough diagram showing the location of this uropygial gland.)
Below are some shots I’ve collected over time, of birds engaged in one of their favorite activities. The methodology varies from species to species, but the end goal is the same.
When you watch birds bath, it can look like random splashing. But there’s a system whereby the water (or dust) is channeled over their backs and to the base of their fluffed up feathers. You can see this channeling effect in the photo of the Black-necked Stilts, where the act of submerging and flapping forces water onto the bird’s back.
Related post: The Imperfect Lawn (or what if birds ruled the world).