American Robin in bird bath with dripper
House Finches on bird bath
It may just be a puddle in your driveway, a half full bird bath or some standing water in a ditch to you, but it could be a matter of life or death for the bird life in your neighborhood. Water is one of the most important external requirements that birds need to survive.
You may ask…why is water so important to birds?
Feather Maintenance. As you know, birds are dependent on their feathers to fly and dirty, messy feathers can mean that a bird can not get to their food source or flee from predators. Just watch your own birdbath, and pay special attention to birds after they first leave the bath. They will sit on their perch and carefully preen and smooth their feathers to ensure that they are in place and in perfect condition. They run their feathers through their beaks, smoothing them out, reconnecting the barbs that hold the feathers together and keep them in tip-top shape. Without water, most birds could not maintain their feathers and keep them in such great condition… ready to fly off at a moment’s notice.
Metabolic Rate. Compared to mammals, birds have a higher metabolic rate, higher heart rate, higher body temperature and a faster (and more efficient) respiration rate. All of these play into the fact that birds need external water. These higher rates of metabolism are required so that birds have the energy to fly, which takes a lot of energy and more water to support.
Higher, and more efficient, respiration. Birds also have a very different respiratory system than mammals. While most of the oxygen exchange occurs in the lungs of mammals, birds have air sacs located throughout their bodies which are much more efficient at transferring oxygen than lungs. While this has the advantage of improving oxygen intake, it has the disadvantage of increased water loss during the respiration process. This, again, requires birds to be more dependent on water intake than mammals.
Birds are also very adept at conserving water too. Just a few of the ways that they keep the water that they have are:
No sweat glands. Unlike mammals, birds not have sweat glands. This is why you may see birds panting heavily on hot summer days. Panting is one of the few ways that birds have to lower their body temperature since they do not sweat.
A different way to rid themselves of body waste. Unlike mammals, birds release urinary waste as uric acid, which they are able to concentrate in their bodies without having to dilute it with water. Some birds are also able to reabsorb much of the water that they would otherwise lose in their feces, creating much drier droppings.
One last cool story about water and birds is the tale of the Sandgrouse. Now, you won’t see a Sandgrouse here in North America, they live in the deserts and dry grasslands of Africa and Eurasia. There is very little natural water found in their habitats, so when they have young, the parents fly to their local watering hole, wade in, and carry water back to their young in specially adapted belly feathers which are designed to soak up water so that the parents can fly up to 19 miles back to their brood with water in tow. How cool is that!
So, providing water to your backyard birds is not just a fun way to see your birds up close as they splash around in your bird bath, drink from your pond, or shower in your mister/dripper, it is also a great way to provide a necessary element of their survival. For more information, visit our education resource page or call your local Wild Birds Unlimited store. For the store closes to you, visit our web site.