Saturday, 30 June 2007

Sunbathing in the vegetable patch

Given the weather of recent days, I would expect you to raise an eyebrow if I were to say that there had been a spot of sunbathing going on in our vegetable patch. Well, it’s true! There is a sheltered but sunny spot at the base of our bean poles, next to the outdoor tomatoes and just over from what is left of the broad beans. It is not actually me that has been doing the sunbathing – I wouldn’t inflict that on my neighbours – instead it is our resident male blackbird. In between his bouts of parental responsibility he has taken to making the most of the somewhat infrequent sunny interludes to let the sun go to work on his plumage.

A number of bird species appear to be regular participants in a spot of sunbathing, including robins, pheasants and, of course, blackbirds. Our cock blackbird settles down on the soil, spreading his wings and fluffing up his body plumage. By doing so he is maximising the amount of plumage that is exposed to the sun’s rays. It is thought that this serves two functions: first, it helps the all-important preen oil spread across the feather surface, working to keep the plumage in good condition. Additionally, it is thought that by exposing the plumage to the sun, small parasites like feather mites can be controlled more effectively.

Not all birds adopt this technique. Another part of our garden, beneath one of our thicker shrubs, is sometimes used by the visiting house sparrows for dust bathing. The loose, friable soil is worked through the plumage by a series of motions that closely resemble those used for more conventional bathing in water. The bird thrusts down and forward with its chest, the wings working to flick soil particles up and over the body. It may then lean, first to one and then to the other, and repeat the effort.

There are even some of our visiting birds that chose to shower in the garden. In the case of the dunnock this is accomplished by moving through wet vegetation (from rain or dew), while the woodpigeons seem to like nothing better than sit out in the rain. It is clear from their actions that this is not simply a case of being caught in the open and reluctantly accepting that they are getting wet. Instead, they adopt the ridiculous position of lifting one wing up into the air and holding it there, as if they are allowing the rain to wet the underside of their wing. All of these different ablutions serve a similar purpose – to keep the plumage in good conditions and, by doing so, keep the bird warm and fit for flight.

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