Today, there were Northern Cardinals, American Robins, Tufted Titmice, a Northern Flicker and a mystery species all sun bathing together. It was amazing! I had seen this behavior before and mistaken it for dust bathing, but these birds were actually sun bathing in an open area on top of leaf litter. Some birds sun bathe in tree branches, though; and I did catch one Northern Cardinal sun bathing on a branch.
The birds spread out their tail feathers, hold out one or both wings, and rest in the sunshine. They keep an eye out for predators while they are soaking up the rays because while they are sun bathing, they are vulnerable.
There are several theories for why they do it.
1. To dry off quickly after a water bath. (Not the case here. None of these birds were wet.)
2. To heat up parasites, which gets them to move and makes them easier to remove.
3. To assist in preening. Birds have an oil gland near their tail, and when they preen, they spread this oil through their feathers to keep them from becoming brittle and to keep them healthy.
4. To make them feel better during molting (loss of feathers and growth of new feathers). I'm not sure how it helps them to feel better, but I theorize that this is why the birds in my yard were sun bathing today. They appeared to be juveniles, and are likely in some stage of molt.
Anyway, here are the photos! It's an interesting behavior to witness! I read that when some people see it for the first time, they mistakenly believe the bird is injured (or dead), depending on how still they are. After seeing it myself, I can understand how they would come to that conclusion!
(near the ground)
another Northern Cardinal
(on the ground)
I'm not sure what species this one is....but it is also sun bathing.
(and Northern Flicker is visible just to the right behind that stick)
And just to help me learn this new lesson about bird bathing, I also had the pleasure of witnessing an actual dust bathing bird after work! I believe it is a juvenile Carolina Wren, but I am not sure.