Growing up in the suburbs of Boston in the 70’s I had a passion for learning about the natural world, discovering the unexpected. and sharing my enthusiasm for nature with others.
With the help of books, magazines and TV, I pictured myself in The Galapagos and the Amazon as I sat cross-legged on my living room floor, imagining where I might go and what I would discover in those distant and exotic locales.
As an adult, I clung to the (unchallenged) belief that the most important and compelling stories about the natural world were always “over there.” I resigned myself to the fact that I had neither the temperament nor means to become a world traveler, and my passion and enthusiasm for nature and wildlife began to fizzle. . . then disappear.
Ironically, it would be an encounter with a common backyard bird (just feet from my living room) that would reignite my passion for discovery.
It was an unseasonably hot day in June, and the backyard habitat was a flurry of activity as adult birds introduced their young to the feeders. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a nondescript gray “lump” in the middle of the deck railing. As I carefully inched towards the window for a better look, I brought the camera up to my eye and fired off a few frames in quick succession.
Before my mind could process such a startling and unexpected scene, the gray lump turned into a Tufted Titmouse and flew out of sight. I kept my camera close at hand in the unlikely event that the bird would return and repeat the strange ritual I had witnessed.
I didn’t have to wait for long.
Many species of birds sun (sunbathe) but it’s a seldom seen (or documented) behavior
Throughout the summer months of June, July, August and September, 2010, I was able to observe and photograph six species of sunning birds. Each species (and individual birds within those species) had their own personal sunning style, and it was rare for any one session to last more than 15 seconds.
Standing with back to the sun
Fluffing/ruffling feathers on the head and back.
While actively feeding, some birds gave in to an urge to sunbathe
Raising wings to expose underparts or flanks
My deck railing has been dubbed the “titmouse tanning bed”
In my backyard sunning spot, Tufted Titmice appear more often than other bird species, spend more time actively sunning and tend toward the “all out” sunning postures that suggest that the bird may be stunned, injured, drugged, or dead.
Social facilitation (birdy see, birdy do) may play a part in creating a sort of “hot spot” location that attracts sunning birds like a magnet.
From an evolutionary perspective, any behavior that places a prey animal in such a vulnerable and helpless state must have benefits for the species that outweigh the danger to the individual.
Difficult to reproduce in the laboratory, avian sunning behavior has not been studied as extensively as other bird behaviors, but there are several accepted theories:
Birds will take advantage of solar heating in the colder months, where food is scarce and metabolism can slow down. Birds have been observed sunning atop snow banks, and large sea birds like cormorants utilize sunning to dry off after diving for food
A bird depends on its feathers for more than flying. Keeping plumage in good order ensures that the bird is well-insulated, protected from the elements, and is able to attract a mate.
Sunning may help convert preening compounds (found in the gland at the base of the tail) to vitamin D, or encourage production of oils in the gland
Direct sunlight may force feather parasites to migrate to areas of the bird where preening is easier (i.e.from the back to the flank/breast area)
Some behavioral ecologists and ethologists recognize avian sunning as a behavior that produces relaxation, enjoyment and, yes, pleasure. In essence, one major motivator for this behavior may be that “it feels good.” It’s hard to deny that in some photos, the bird’s expression certainly suggests pleasure, if not outright ecstasy.
Although every bird follows its own “style” of sunning, there are subtle signals that a sunning session in imminent.
Immediately prior to an all-out sunning session on my deck railing, the majority of birds I observed would compress (sleek) their feathers. . .
then squat, lowering their breast/belly until it touched the surface
I would look for the instant when their legs would disappear, and then get ready with my camera
It was an unlikely encounter with a single Tufted Titmouse that piqued my curiosity, reignited my sense of wonder and drew me closer to the mysterious and exotic wildlife dramas that were playing out right outside my door.
If you are going to capture this behavior (through the camera, your eyes or binoculars) it’s not simply a matter of staking out a sunny spot in the garden and waiting for the sun worship to begin. Perhaps more than any other behavior that you might witness in close proximity to your home or feeding station, success is more of a “right place/right time” phenomena.
So, it helps to stay curious and do what you can to provide a welcoming, appropriate and bird-friendly environment. (sidebar)
Invite the birds, but not for dinner
Keep pets indoors. It would be bad manners to allow a pet to make a meal of the birds you’ve invited to your yard.
Create a “spa” atmosphere. If “feeding” the birds is forbidden where you live, offer water and loose sand/dirt for bathing birds.
Provide nearby “escape” routes or appropriate cover. If there’s a brush pile, shrubs or forest edge near your “avian spa” it can only help to encourage sunning.
If you notice areas of your yard that are especially busy during the hottest part of the day, (when birds are less active) take a closer look for birds exhibiting sunning tip-off behavior