As the days grow colder and shorter, I randomly enquired, “What better way to warm up than to write about the sun?” I normally take special note of my last outdoor cafe visit as I sit lounging in the sun’s warmth over late morning brunch with colleagues of my age ( I have completed six decades on Earth already). The sun’s warm tendrils on my skin are such a pleasant and delicious sensation, and I am happy to know that birds are also associated with sunbathing, and they may also do so for relaxation and enjoyment, just like humans.
Many birders have observed what can be a humorous sight: a bird perched on the ground, wings spread far-flung, lounging in the warm sunlight. If the warmth is warm enough, the bird might even have its mouth open, throbbing like a puppy.
This behavior is called “sunning,” or sunbathing, and has been noted by ornithologists since at least 1831 CE when legendary John James Audubon reported a Great White Heron that “will sometimes drop its wings several inches as if they were dislocated.” The bird was spreading its feathers in the sun’s warmth, he conceded, but he wasn’t sure why.
Now we know the reason, and we will explore that in our today’s article.
As per research on different birds’ behavior, more than 70 families have regularly sunbathed for thousands of years. Birds such as swallows, cormorants, chickadees, finches, doves, larks, jays, and more are said to enjoy “sunning” or sunbathing. However, several bird varieties may sun themselves at varying times of the day and for varied reasons.
Birds are known to sunbathe while perched on a branch or while resting on the ground to heat their bodies on winter days, for Vitamin D, to help disperse essential oils along the feathers (yes, birds spread essential oils on their body just like humans), and dry off after water bathing as wet wings influence the flight performance.
Birds also sunbathe on sweltering days and may be observed with an open bill as if adorably panting like dogs. However, the most critical reason that birds are known to sunbathe is said to be to rid themselves of parasites such as the very irritating and deadly (for birds) feather lice.
Birds can often be observed dressing their feathers and must do so to maintain their appearance and health, which directly affects their ability to find a fitting mate come breeding season (birds, just like humans, have to keep gorgeous body features to find a suitable mate).
Feather lice are about one millimeter long and are made of keratin (another similarity) which is the same makeup of a bird’s adorable feathers. Removing these pesky parasites is often tricky because sunbathing and preening alone is thought to help birds with complete parasite prevention. Although not entirely understood, several scientific studies have shown that sunbathing can directly kill lice. Higher temperatures may make the lice move away from the birds, thereby giving our bird friends a chance to free themselves from these bothersome insects.