The hot days as July merged into August were not conducive to much nature rambling. On one such scorcher, I was sitting in the shade on the patio, cool drink and binoculars to hand, idly watching a scramble of young blue tits competing for the bird feeders and hoping some were fledglings from our nest-box, when my attention was caught by a flurry of wings around the bird bath. This is a stone bowl mounted on a pedestal and placed reassuringly close to bushy cover. Round the edge perched several tits taking sips of water. Then one plunged in and began bathing with much vigorous wing-flapping; another joined him, then another. At one point the bowl contained five all splashing together, like a rubber paddling-pool full of toddlers.
When one bird starts to bathe it seems to put others in the mood, but they usually wait their turn decorously, like guests to a bathroom. I enjoyed watching these exuberant youngsters. When they emerged their juvenile plumage was sodden – they looked like poorly wrung out dish-mops. It was comic – and, I felt, fun – but of course it served an important purpose, particularly now, as they enter the moult. It’s not just comfort or personal appearance that motivates this care for feathers – it can be a matter of life or death, and birds use many grooming strategies.
Earlier in the summer my stepson called me to the window to look at a young blackbird, another of this year’s nestlings, lying flat on the lawn wings outstretched and head lolling to one side. Was it ill? Was it dead? Not a bit of it. It was sunbathing – soaking up the warmth and, I suppose, the vitamin D – and encouraging parasites to surface to be pecked out. Friends told us of another ingenious vermin-control method. They observed one of their garden blackbirds on their patio busily picking small ants from between the stones and carefully inserting them among its feathers. This is called “anting”; the formic acid released by the ants kills off parasites. How clever is that?
During another lazy patio lunch we watched our hen blackbird fanned out in the sun close to the flower border. She soaked up the sun, broke off for an occasional snack of apple or sip from the bird bath and a quick preen, then flat out again – a bird version of a pool-side holiday. She’d raised at least three broods of chicks this season – she deserved a break.
Wharfedale Naturalists Society