Aug 26 2009

Why do birds take dust baths?

Published by at 7:34 am under Bird Behavior

House Sparrow taking a dust bath (photo by Vishnevskiy Vasily via Shutterstock)

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)

12 responses so far

12 Responses to “Why do birds take dust baths?”

  1. Kayon 01 May 2012 at 10:56 pm

    Thanks for this explanation! I’ve never seen the sparrows do this before until today.

    The past couple of days I have been weeding my long-neglected yard. This afternoon, I came home after running an errand to find six sparrows enjoying dirt baths, each small bird sitting in its own little depression of soil once inhabited by a weed. The birds vigorously flapped their wings and kicked up quite a dust cloud, chirping in joy as they did so. A seventh bird flew in to join the group, but tried to oust one of the bathers out of its bath. The two birds scuffled for a while, with wings beating frantically amidst loud chirping. The interloper was rebuffed, and found a dirt depression of its own. Peace was restored and the joyous bathing resumed.

  2. Bethon 18 Aug 2012 at 3:43 pm

    I was standing at my kitchen sink today washing dishes and noticed a lone sparrow seemingly digging a depression into some loose soil under a small magnolia tree by my patio. There were other sparrows around but, this little guy was taking the lead with his task. Then I watched him flapping about in the depression he made and kicking up the dust. I had never seen that before until today! So naturally I had to google to find out what and why he was doing that. Thank you for your explanation. I’ve noticed that the other sparrows are following suit now as well. It makes for something interesting to look at whilst I do the dishes. Thanks!

  3. Kentonon 09 May 2013 at 7:19 am

    Today, I went to the beach with my children. I found
    a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell to her ear and
    screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her
    ear. She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is completely off topic
    but I had to tell someone!

  4. kevin Jameson 01 Jun 2013 at 6:06 am

    I am glad that I found this site which gives me an explanation as it has been worrying me as sparrows are doing this and messing up my lawn. I developed some bad patches in the lawn and the grass does not come back as the sparrows continuously make their holes and borrow in so that only their head sticks out. They shake themselves around vigorously and create their own little dust bowl. It is quite cute and I appreciate now why they do it. I thought they were attracted to insects in the ground. Now I just have to find a way of keep the sparrows and my lawn!

  5. Judyon 31 Jul 2013 at 6:09 pm

    I, too, saw some sparrows outside my window at work digging and tossing the dry, powdery dirt onto themselves today. It was cute and fun to see. They seemed to be having a great time. I look out this window every day and have been for years, but this was a first for me. Thanks for the great explanation!

  6. Michelleon 04 Aug 2013 at 10:21 am

    Same as the others, I did a quick Google search for an explanation of the behavior. I was watching a variety of birds enjoying the bird bath and bird food in the backyard when I heard several birds near my front door – I looked out and observed sparrows bouncing around in a landscaping area. They were chasing each other around and then several started burrowing into the dirt/mulch and tossing it over themselves. They also pecked at it so I thought they were searching for ants/insects but now I know it’s a dirt bath! Thank you for the explanation!

  7. Jeanne Watersonon 28 Aug 2013 at 2:56 pm

    Thanks for the info. Im sitting here in my carwatching birds and thr sparrows are taking dust baths. I always wonderef about this.

  8. Wendyon 23 Sep 2013 at 9:26 pm

    Just as I thought! I knew the birds did that to get rid of something that’s crawling around in their feathers. Growing up in Queens NY, I witnessed the same thing with the little sparrows. At first I thought they were marking their territory to get girlfriends/boyfriends. Now I have chickens (I now live in Washington state) and they do the same thing. It’s really fun to watch them do that. At least for me.

  9. Johnon 09 Feb 2014 at 11:03 pm

    Like everybody else here, I saw this the other day in the dust under an urban tree and got here by Google. There were four birds sitting in wells in the dust, flapping around–never saw that before!

    So, thanks!

  10. Gaynellon 07 Jun 2014 at 2:17 am

    Amazing little birds, these sparrows. I enjoyed watching their dirt baths yesterday. I guess all God’s creatures are amazing when you think about it!

  11. Janeon 25 Jul 2014 at 11:54 am

    Thanks for the explanation, I had noticed when I went into the garden to continue clearing that there were dips in the dry soil. I have just finished clearing the rest of the front garden of weeds and long grass, I now only have bushes which have been cut back, I looked out the window to admire my work and low and behold I had a flock of birds having a dust bath, thinking they might need a drink I cut a large juice bottle length ways to make a bath they just loved it I was going to put bark down but I think I will leave a space for the birds to bathe.I think my grandson will enjoy watching them when he comes to visit.

    I did wonder why the birds went through this ritual, I have now been enlightened, many thanks.

  12. Davidon 27 Jul 2014 at 7:15 pm

    I have a rather large House Sparrow community in my backyard. They can be a pain sometimes but I do enjoy watching them take dust baths.

    Years ago I set up a squared enclosure specifically for dust bathing. I thoroughly raked the dirt clean of rocks, sticks and other riffraff and hollowed out eight grooves for the Sparrows to bathe in. Every couple years I gather as much of the loose dirt/dust as I can and filter it through an old sifter to make the dust even finer. A deluxe 8-bath dust bath.

    I was just watching about twenty or so Sparrows enjoying the baths and kicking up a massive dust cloud in the process. Sometimes the rabbits will roll in it too. Make one for your yard. You’ll enjoy it!

    Thank you for the explanation on why they bathe in the dust.

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