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If you’re keen to spot feathered friends in the backyard then you’re probably regularly on the lookout. However, a lot of bird lovers have noticed their avian friends in some rather unusual positions in the garden.
Birds sitting on the ground or perhaps on a perch with their wings spread out wide, seemingly soaking up the sun. But seriously, birds don’t sunbathe; do they?
While the act of avian sunbathing has been somewhat shrouded in mystery for decades, ornithologists are starting to uncover some of the reasons our feathered friends behave this way.
If you’ve spotted a bird sunbathing in your backyard and wondered why, we have some possible answers.
What are the Reasons Birds Like to Sunbathe?
While you and I might call it sunbathing, the experts refer to this behavior as sunning. There are many reasons that birds bask like this, so let’s take a closer look at some of them.
To Warm Up
Sunning in birds has been recorded by humans since 1831, with the first to notice it being John James Audubon as he observed a white heron acting this way.
While birds are warm-blooded, their body temperature can fluctuate depending on factors such as the climate, their level of activity, and their diet. In order to raise their body temperature, birds will sunbathe. They do this by turning their backs towards the sun as this allows them to expose as much of their body as possible to the warmth. The more of their bodies that they can expose to the sun, the more quickly they will raise their temperature.
On top of this, birds will spread their tail feathers and drop their wings slightly. As Audubon noted back in the 1830s, it looks as though the wings are dislocated when the bird sits like this. On very hot days, the bird may also sit with its beak open, and all of these things combined can lead some people to believe they are hurt, but this is not the case.
Typically birds will sunbathe early in the day or when the weather is cold. Doing this means that the bird can make the most of solar radiation, warming itself up without using any of its energy.
To Get Rid of Parasites
Among other behaviors like preening and scratching, birds will also use sunning to aid in getting rid of parasites. It’s thought that around 50 different bird families engage in this behavior, and it’s effective because the UV rays from the sun kill off any parasites.
Studies have shown that many birds, including swallows, will only sunbathe on bright, sunny days when there is not a lot of wind. These appear to be the best conditions.
If birds do not get rid of feather parasites then this can lead to all kinds of problems, including difficulty flying, appearance issues, and a decreased ability to insulate themselves. These things can be fatal to a bird if they are not dealt with, but when the bird suns itself, the parasites will move to new locations within the feathers, allowing the bird to preen itself and remove them entirely.
If you spend some time observing a sunbathing bird, you’ll likely notice that they go straight to preening once the session is over. Scientists conducted a study to see the intensity of preening in relation to sunning. They sprayed some birds with a pesticide while others were not sprayed. It was noted that the birds with the pesticide spray did not spend anywhere near as much time preening once they had finished sunbathing.
For Feather Maintenance
Birds use several ways to take care of their feathers, including dusting, shaking, and of course, sunning. Blackbirds and robins are among some of the most common birds that you might see behaving this way, and it is believed that by basking in the sun, the bird’s preen oil will be better distributed and therefore more effective in getting rid of parasites.
As we mentioned earlier, when a bird’s feathers are properly taken care of, this ensures efficient flight and better insulation. As a result, the bird is healthier and better able to survive.
Drying Off After Bathing
If you have a bird bath or pool of water in your backyard then you’ll notice how often birds bathe. However, they cannot simply take to the skies directly after this as wet feathers make it much more difficult to fly.
This is why you’ll often see birds perched in a sunny spot after bathing, preening their feathers and shaking off any excess water.
I don’t know about you, but I love to spend time sitting in the sun; there’s something super relaxing about it. Of course, you need to be sun smart when doing so! But it isn’t just humans that enjoy basking in the sun, birds love it too.
While scientists have been unable to prove with certainty that birds sun themselves for relaxation, you only have to watch a bird to see how much it enjoys sitting in the sun.
In addition to this, birds are giving themselves a health boost since sunning increases the bird’s Vitamin D levels. In the base of a bird’s tail is a small gland that secretes oil. There are compounds in this oil that are activated by the sun and convert to Vitamin D. So, sunning actually makes birds healthier.
How Do Birds Like to Sunbathe?
As I discussed earlier on, one of the first people to note the position of a sunbathing bird was renowned ornithologist and naturalist, John James Audubon. He talked about how the position of the birds’ dropped wings appeared as though they were dislocated. It is for this reason that some people are fooled into thinking they have stumbled upon an injured bird. But watch the bird for a few moments and you’ll soon see that there is nothing wrong.
But it isn’t only those signature dropped wings that let you know you’re looking at a sunbathing bird. There is a very specific posture that a bird will adopt when sunning.
Their main aim is to ensure that as much of their bodies as possible is exposed to the sun. This often means turning their backs toward the sun, as this has the largest surface area. However, the bird may also puff up its feathers on the head and spread its tail feathers out like a fan, therefore exposing more of them to the UV rays.
In addition to this, birds may also spread their wings out wide, such as the turkey vulture, which can often be seen in this position on a cold morning, trying to warm itself up. The more of its body that the bird can get in that sunlight, the faster it is going to warm up.
You may see a bird in this position on the ground and again, this can fool you into thinking that the bird is injured. However, many birds will also perch in a tree when sunbathing, provided they can find a sunny spot. Being in a tree has the added advantage of being protected from predators.
It’s thought that a bird will spend as much as 9% of its time sunning and performing other maintenance activities such as preening.
What Species of Birds Like to Sunbathe?
There are more than 10,000 species of birds known to humans, and these are spread across 82 families. It is believed that as many as 50 of all bird families engage in sunbathing in some shape or form.
This includes birds of prey, various types of doves, swallows, finches, blackbirds, and many more. However, there are some birds that can be found sunbathing which may surprise you.
For example, one would not expect nocturnal species to sunbathe solely because they are not active during the hours of sunlight. But amazingly, there is evidence to show that birds such as the owl do indeed sunbathe. There was one notable image taken by Max Blake in Belize showing an owl in a typical sunbathing position.
Some aquatic birds are also known for their sunbathing behavior, most notably, you may see geese soaking up the sun. Canada geese are a prime example of this and can often be observed sitting with their wings outstretched or down by their sides with their large backs facing toward the sun.
However, the behaviors of some water birds can be mistaken for sunning when they’re actually trying to get rid of body heat. This includes when swans can be seen swimming with one foot out of the water. Moreover, you may have a hard time coming across a duck that sunbathes as this is not something that is widely reported.
Game birds, however, have been seen to sunbathe and this includes things like chickens and pheasants. These birds will typically spread out their tail into a fan while stretching out one wing at a time.
Hilariously, homeowners are constantly reporting sights of crows sprawled out on rooftops, looking as though they have collapsed and given up. But upon closer inspection, it’s easy to see that these beautiful black birds are doing nothing more than soaking up the rays in a spread-out and rather questionable position.