Years ago, as I cruised a gravel road in central Oklahoma, a small cloud of dust up ahead caught my eye. I stopped about 50 yards away and focused my binoculars on the scene. Four bobwhites furiously fluffed their feathers and flailed their wings.
They were bathing -- in the dust. Since then, I have seen ruffed grouse, ring-necked pheasants, wild turkeys, robins, bluebirds, cardinals, mourning doves and kestrels do the same thing. These observations prompted me to designate a small space in my yard as a dust zone.
Building a dust bath is a simple backyard project. Select an open, flat area with full exposure to sunlight. This ensures the area stays as dry as possible and minimizes the risk posed by stalking predators. An area three feet square is adequate. Just remove the sod, and add the dust -- equal parts sand and topsoil. Rim the perimeter with landscape timbers, bricks, or flat rocks. After a day or two of sunshine, your dust bath is ready.
How they bathe
A dusting bird typically squats and forms a small depression in the soil. Sometimes it pecks the surrounding soil and loosens it by scratching with its feet. The bird fluffs its feathers and uses its wings and feet to create a mini dust storm. Sometimes, a bird will actually roll in the dirt. When finished, the bird stands, shakes its feathers and preens with its bill. Oil gathered from the uropygial gland at the base of the tail conditions and waterproofs the feathers.
Dusting is just another way birds ensure that their feathers are kept in top condition. If feathers get too dry or too oily, they deteriorate. Dusting may also soothe the irritation associated with molt and ectoparasites such as lice and mites.
Given a choice, though I suspect most birds would choose water over dust. Water is obviously essential for drinking, but on hot summer days birds love to soak to cool off. They bend their legs to get as deeply as possible into the water then they vigorously fluff their feathers. Getting the cool water directly onto their skin is the fastest way to cool down. When they emerge, they look clean, refreshed and energized -- just like I feel after a dip in a spring-fed pond.
The simplest way to provide water is to put up a bird bath. It could be anything from an inverted garbage can lid on a tripod of rocks to a formal bird bath, or even a small pond complete with pump and waterfall. You are limited only by your imagination and budget.
Regardless of how sophisticated you may choose to get, here are some tips to keep in mind:
Keep it shallow
Keep the water no more than two inches deep. This is not a problem with most saucer-style baths, but if you install a small pool or pond, pile a stack of rocks to make one end shallow enough for small birds to bathe.
Place the bath in open shade. It should be shaded between noon and 4 p.m. so the water doesn't get too hot. Overhead cover also provides safe haven when a cat or bird-eating hawk enters the area.
Keep a bath at least 15 feet from any feeders. Seed hulls and droppings soil water rapidly.
Change the water and rinse the bowl daily. A plastic scouring pad makes quick work of most grime. Algae, droppings and wind blown debris can turn a bird bath into a germ-infested "soup" in just a few days.
Add a mister or a dripper. Birds find the sound of moving water irresistible. Dripper valves can regulate the flow of water from a steady stream to just a few drops per minute. Misters spray a fine mist of water above the bath, or they can be placed in a tree or shrub to simulate a refreshing summer rain. Warblers, vireos, hummingbirds, orioles, and tanagers are just some of the neotropical migrants that enjoy bathing in a humid tropic-like mist.
But if providing water sounds like too much bother, it's nice to know that even a simple dust bowl can soothe your dirty birds.