May 23, 2013
Written by Jack Sanders
Thursday, 26 August 2010 12:26
Birds are full of surprises. One behavior that invariably fascinates people who witness it is called “sunning.”
Jacquie Littlejohn of Weston recently observed — and photographed — a sunning wren.
“On a very hot day, this little House Wren had just used the birdbath and was drying off in the sun when I spotted the adorable scene,” she said of the accompanying photo.
The bird looks as if it had crashed into a rock formation, and was lying there, stunned. In fact, it had deliberately positioned itself on the rock to obtain the best angle of strong sunlight.“Sunning birds adopt quite varied and extremely unusual postures,” writes George A. Clark Jr. in Cornell’s Handbook of Bird Biology. “Commonly, the bird’s feathers are fluffed, the tail is spread against the ground and a wing is extended on at least one side, sometimes both.”
Ornithologists believe there are several reasons why at least 170 species of birds occasionally flatten themselves on rocks, sidewalks, roofs, bare soil, and other warm surfaces for up to several minutes.
The most basic reason is, well, heat. Birds may use sunning to warm up on a cold day. In Jacquie’s bird’s case, it may have been the cool water that prompted the sunning.
But ornithologists suspect birds use this technique for other purposes. “Direct sunlight causes skin and feather parasites to concentrate under the wings or to climb to the top of the bird’s head, where they are then dislodged by scratching and preening,” says Dr. Stephen W. Kress, a research biologist with National Audubon.
Scientists also suspect that sunning stimulates the formation of vitamins and helps keep feathers healthy and supple.
Dr. Clark says that while many birds practice sunning, few experimental studies have tried to figure out its functions. He adds, “The possibility that birds might sun simply because it feels good is difficult to test.”
Speaking of parasites, Jeannette Waggner of Darien had an ‘odd bird’ that “could almost be a cardinal, via size and coloration — except for his black head and ‘collar’ of red feathers. I’ve searched my three bird books to no avail and wondered if you might know who this is?”
Jeannette had a cardinal that has lost most or all of its head feathers, and is showing its deep purple skin, which looks black. Ornithologists are still debating the cause of this phenomenon — a disease, a nutritional deficiency, or an aberration of molting, for instance — but most seem to believe that it has to do with an infestation of feather mites. The head is the only part of a bird’s body that it cannot, for obvious reasons, preen with its beak. It must use scratching, instead, but scratching cannot control mites as well as picking them off with the beak can.
The phenomenon is common enough that we’ve seen it a couple of times in the past 20 years or so. The cardinals eventually grow back their feathers and return to normal.
The White-tailed Kite, a bird of prey normally found in the Southwest, has continued to hang around the shore at Stratford since Aug. 1 and was still there Sunday. It’s the first time the species has been seen in Connecticut.
Hawk Identification Tutorial with Bedford Audubon’s Hawk Counter Arthur W. Green, Sunday, Sept. 12, 2 to 3:30 p.m., Westmoreland Sanctuary, 260 Chestnut Ridge Road, Bedford Corners, N.Y., 914-666-8448, bedfordaudubon.org
Fall Migration at Chestnut Ridge Hawk Watch, bring binoculars, Saturday, Sept. 18, 9 to 11:30 a.m., Bedford Audubon at Arthur Butler Sanctuary, Chestnut Ridge Road, Bedford Corners, 914-666-8448, bedfordaudubon.org
Breakfast with the Hawks with Hawk Counter Arthur W. Green, and Naturalist Adam Zorn Sunday, Sept. 19, at 8 a.m. at Chestnut Ridge Hawk Watch Arthur Butler Sanctuary, 261 Chestnut Ridge Road, Bedford Corners, 914-666-8448. bedfordaudubon.org
Copyright 2010 by Jack Sanders. Send sightings or comments to: jackfsanders [at sign] yahoo.com, or to Bird Notes, Box 1019, Ridgefield, CT 06877; or call 203-438-1183, extension BIRD (2473), and leave a message with your report, spelling your first and last names and telling us your town. If you need help identifying a bird, try your local nature center. If you find an injured bird, call wildlife rehabilitator Darlene Wimbrow of Redding, 203-438-0618, Wildlife in Crisis of Weston, 203-544-9913, or Wild Wings of Greenwich, 203-637-9822. The columnist’s website is www. sandersbooks. com.
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