Friday, November 18, 2016

Well Fed or Well Groomed?

The Little Brown Birds (or LBBs as our D.I.L. and son call them) are making a day spa out of family room garden.

LBBs scatter
dry dirt outside our window –
dust baths at daybreak.
Normally this perennial flowerbed, which sits across the paver path from our family room, would be blanketed in Cedar bark mulch.  But this year, because of some on-going plant replacement work that Mars and I are doing, the bare earth is instead exposed.  And due to our recent drought that soil is preternaturally dry.  I vaguely recollect one of two instances of mulch-bathing in previous years.  But, I suspect that the extreme exfoliating effect of the cedar chips was not quite what the LBBs were hoping for – so they probably flew off in search of browner pastures.  This year however the softer silt surface is apparently just what the doctor ordered – if wild birds had medical coverage, and they paid attention to the advice.
So, is this strange but entertaining behavior a form of recreation, or a relaxation technique, or perhaps even some form of avian spiritual ritual?  No.  Evidently dust (or sand) bathing is a common grooming activity of animals in order to clean their fur, feathers or skin, and to remove parasites.
“Birds cower close to the ground while taking a dust bath, vigorously wriggling their bodies and flapping their wings. This disperses loose substrate into the air. The birds spread one or both wings, which allows the falling substrate to fall between the feathers and reach the skin. The dust bath is often followed by thorough shaking to further ruffle the feathers which may be accompanied with preening using the bill.” (
 I am particularly impressed by the part where the LBBs stretch out their wings to permit “the falling substrate to fall between the feathers and reach the skin.”  How did the first LBB use its LBB (Little Bird Brain) to figure this out?  And then teach it to its friends – “Hey guys, watch this!”  Or is the whole spread wing thing just a perfectly natural feel-good reaction to the pleasant feeling of finally getting that killer itch scratched?
I checked online and apparently, as hard as it may be for some of us to believe, the human spa business has not picked up on this holistic dry dirt idea – except as a food supplement. 
Now technically it’s not the same plain old whatever-you-find-on-the-ground dirt that our LBBs are happy to frolic in.  It’s called “Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth (DE)” and it is made from the fossilized remains of tiny, aquatic organisms called diatoms.    Unlike Rebeca the orphan girl in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” who actually ate dirt, this all-natural soil is simply mixed with water and drunk.  There is however at least one caveat.  According to, “there are two kinds of Diatomaceous Earth, one you put in pools (very toxic), and food grade. MAKE SURE that you purchase only Food Grade, and consult your physician (or naturopath) before you start.”
Many spas for humans however do offer wet dirt treatments in the form of mud scrubs and mud pools.  Mars and I have partaken of the latter several times at the Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring and Spa in northern New Mexico.  As their website puts it, “Where else can you slather mud all over your body and bake in the sun until done? As our special blend of clay dries, toxins are released from the pores of your skin and you come away feeling cleansed and refreshed.”
And for those of you who are curious, “Please note that the natural mineral content and coloration of the mud may stain bathing suits” – so the answer is yes, or no, depending upon how the question is phrased.
So here’s how it works.  Probably with some help, you coat the entire unclothed portion of your body with their magic mud.  Then quickly (before your limbs harden into position) stretch yourself out on a lounge chair in the warm sun, and let the mud dry while staying as motionless as possible – which becomes easier to do as the wet earth solidifies.  After a while you somehow get up and move yourself into the rinsing-off pool where the toxins you are shedding mingle with the toxins of those who have come before you and form (I guess) new toxic relationships.  Then you take a shower.  Your skin really does feel good – and you don’t have to worry about aligning yourself up with any plummeting substrates to get the full benefit.
This obviously is very similar to the animal behavior of wallowing – of which according to ethologists (those who study such stuff) dust bathing is technically not a sub-category.
Per, some reasons for rolling in the mud may include: thermoregulation, providing a sunscreen, removal of ectoparasites, social cohesion, relief from moulting, relief from biting insects, play (in young animals), skin maintenance, camouflage, and male-male conflict social behavior. 
There is some “social cohesion” at the Ojo Caliente mud pool – especially among couples – but I haven’t observed any “Male-male conflict social behavior”.  Tempers do however occasionally flare at our LBB Day Spa when a newcomer tries to usurp one of the established dusting pits that one of the regulars has hopped away from for a quick break.  In general though the atmosphere is peacefully spa-like, and the behaviors of the bathers is entertaining enough that Mars and I have decided not to mulch over the area until at least next spring.
But, just to confuse matters, some of the chatter on the web says that birds do like mulch covered beds – both for the insects that come along within the chips, as well as for the native bugs and worms that find a safe home under the pine bark.  And I have in fact seen both LBBs, and Mid-Sized Brown Birds such as Robins, turning over chunks of mulch with apparent success in this and other parts of our yard. 
To mulch or not to mulch?  Well-fed or well-groomed?   Choices Mars and I look forward to making in the next gardening season.

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