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Soaking up the sun with birds

Picture this: It’s been raining consistently for the last three days. The sky has been gray for who knows how long, and the forecast only predicts more rain. With the rain, comes a chill in the air that makes a cool day colder, perhaps leaving you with a chill you can’t seem to shake if you get caught in it for too long. If you’re lucky, you can seek and maintain shelter – staying home and avoiding the rain all together. Or, when necessity hits and you find yourself in need of facing the rain, you can toss on a raincoat and hurry from point A to point B as quickly as you can.

Now, think about how you feel when you catch that first ray of sunshine after a week of gloomy weather. Things become a little more vibrant with more light peeking through the clouds. You can feel the warmth of the sun press against your skin, and now you may find yourself searching for any excuse to be able to soak up the sun (and maybe even listen to a little Sheryl Crow).

If you find yourself relating to any of those statements from above, you may be surprised to find yourself relating to birds. When not taking the opportunity to shower in the rain, many birds will seek shelter. Frequently, this means finding a cavity or nice large clump of trees to hide in or under. That raincoat you have? Birds have an oil produced in the uropygial gland – a small pimple-like structure found at the base of their rump – that allows them to condition and waterproof their feathers.

Birds are endotherms, like you and I, so just like us they can regulate their own body temperature, but it still feels nice to get a little head start with the help of the sun. Sunbathing is an important part of a bird’s routine, so it is not just limited to days after bad weather. In fact, there are many beneficial reasons why birds tend to sunbathe. 

Sunbathing can help with feather maintenance. When oils are heated, they become less viscous or in other words, they move faster. So that oil produced to maintain their feathers can be spread more easily. It also helps control ectoparasites, either by killing them directly or by increasing their vulnerability to preening as they try to escape from the heat.

UV light is important for birds because UVA is part of the vision spectrum of birds, they can see more than what we can, while UVB helps with the production of Vitamin D3 which helps with calcium absorption. A lack of calcium in birds results in an increased risk of seizures, an increased risk of reproductive problems such as egg laying, and lower bone density with an increased risk of fractures.

There are also different ways to sunbathe. Some species, like vultures, prefer to stand up, spreading their wings out away from their bodies, while species of pigeons and doves have been spotted lying down, lifting or spreading one wing at a time. Others, like our guira cuckoos or tawny frogmouths, will lift regions of feathers on their bodies, sometimes creating what looks like balding patches to the passing eye. Either way, it involves trying to expose as much surface area as possible to take the best advantage of an opportunity.

So, if the old saying is true, that “April showers bring May flowers,” we may very well be finding ourselves faced with the situations above, bouts of rain followed by periods of sunny days and therefore plenty of chances to watch birds demonstrate their sunbathing techniques and practice one that suits you best!
Cynthia B.
Keeper II, Birds

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl