Someone asked me this question at the bus stop the other day. I’m not surprised it came up because the ubiquitous city birds – house sparrows – are champions of dust baths. They’re the ones who prompted the question.
House sparrows prefer very fine dust and will flap up a storm when they find a patch of it. They dig a hollow with their feet, push their bellies into the dust and toss it under their wings and over their backs as if it was water. Their goal is to get the dust into their feathers and all the way down to their skin. When they’re suitably coated they shake off the dust and preen it away until their feathers are in good condition again.
Why go to this trouble? Dust smothers skin and feather parasites and absorbs excess oil that’s removed as the dust is preened away. Did you know you can clean your hair using powder? It’s the same idea.
House sparrows take dust baths even when water is available. Maybe the first house sparrow came from a desert climate. After all, their Paleolithic fossils have been found in Ouum-Qatafa Cave in Israel. If they can clean with dust and save water for drinking, why not?
This summer we’ve had so much rain the house sparrows must be hard pressed to find any dry dirt. They might have to use my bird bath after all.
(photo of a house sparrow taking a dust bath by Vishnevskiy Vasily via Shutterstock)