As the days grow shorter, and colder, I thought to myself, “What better way to warm up than to talk about the sun?” I usually take special note of my last restaurant patio visit as I sit basking in the warmth of the sun over lunch with friends. The feeling of the sun’s warm tendrils on my skin is such a delicious and pleasant sensation and I am pleased to know that birds are also known to sunbathe and may also do so for enjoyment and relaxation.
Sunbathing has been noted by ornithologists since 1831 when John James Audubon witnessed a great white heron engaged in the activity. He recorded that the bird would drop its wings as if they were dislocated. Other birders have also attested to the fact that sunbathing birds may appear to be injured as they sit motionless with their wings spread wide or drooped on the ground. Birders caution those coming across a bird in this state to be sure to carefully observe the bird before disturbing them as their behavior may not be due to distress or illness.
Per studies done on this bird behavior, more than 50 families are known to sunbathe. Birds such as chickadees, cormorants, doves, finches, jays, larks, swallows, and more are said to enjoy sunbathing or “sunning.” However, different bird varieties may sun themselves at different times of the day and for different reasons.
Birds are said to sunbathe while perched on a branch or while on the ground in order to warm their bodies on cold days, for Vitamin D, to help spread essential oils along the feathers, and to dry off after bathing as wet wings affect the efficiency of flight. Birds also sunbathe on very hot days and may be seen with an open bill as if panting like our canine friends. The most important reason that birds sunbathe, however, is said to be to rid themselves of parasites such as feather lice.
Birds can often be seen preening their feathers and must do so in order to maintain their health and appearance which directly impacts their ability to find a suitable mate come breeding season. Feather lice are approximately one millimeter long and are made of keratin which is the same makeup of a bird’s feathers. Removing these pesky parasites is often times difficult through preening alone and sunbathing is thought to help birds with parasite prevention. Although not completely understood, certain scientific studies have shown that sunbathing can directly kill lice and the higher temperatures may cause the lice to move making them easier for birds to preen.
In short, birds sunbathe in order to preserve their overall well-being. Furthermore, understanding this maintenance behavior of our feathered friends could potentially aid in conservation. Birds that are often found sunning themselves may carry more parasites which may not only impact the host’s well-being but the well-being of those in close contact. Understanding a bird’s behavior and reaction to changes in environmental conditions could shed much-needed insight into ensuring the longevity of certain species around the world.