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How birds keep their feathers fresh when water is frozen

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Common Redpoll uses snow to keep its feathers fresh.
Common Redpoll uses snow to keep its feathers fresh. Photo by mayhaga.

In the column Since You Asked in every issue of BirdWatching, Contributing Editor Julie Craves answers readers’ questions about birds and bird behavior. Here is a question from our March-April 2017 issue:

I know it is important for birds to keep their feathers clean and to bathe regularly. How do birds in northern climates keep their feathers fresh if the water is frozen? — Mary Martin, Lafayette, Louisiana

If liquid water is unavailable, a number of species will bathe using snow. When the snow penetrates ruffled feathers, it melts, dampening the feathers. Birds then preen as they would after a water bath, cleaning their feathers and using oils from the preen gland for waterproofing. Birds use the same types of maneuvers in snow that they use when bathing in water — lowering the head and flicking the wings.

I’ve read fascinating reports of Common Redpolls performing movements that seem to be derived from snow-bathing. The birds put their heads into fluffy snow and flutter their wings. Then, rather than lifting their heads, shaking the snow into their feathers, and preening, the redpolls simply move forward, creating tunnels. Biologist Bernd Heinrich, the well-known author and professor emeritus at the University of Vermont, published detailed observations of the behavior.

Birds build snow tunnels for fun (New Scientist, December 19, 2014).

He noted that it appeared to be stimulated by the related actions of flockmates: When one bird started tunneling, others joined in. Heinrich found no evidence that the tunneling served any obvious purpose and concluded the play-like behavior was potentially useful in conditions where it might be necessary to shelter in snow tunnels. — Julie Craves

About Julie Craves

Julie-Craves-120Julie is supervisor of avian research at the Rouge River Bird Observatory at the University of Michigan Dearborn and a research associate at the university’s Environmental Interpretive Center. She writes about her research on the blog Net Results, and she maintains the website Coffee & Conservation, a thorough resource on where coffee comes from and its impact on wild birds.

Read other questions that Julie has answered in “Since You Asked.”

If you have a question about birds for Julie, send it to [email protected] or visit our Contact page.

Read the abstract:

Bernd Heinrich (2014) Redpoll Snow Bathing: Observations and Hypothesis. Northeastern Naturalist, Vol. 21, No. 4: N45-N52. Abstract.

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