Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Clawing at the Dirt

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

This morning I woke up, shook off the night, grabbed my cup of coffee, and went outside to scratch in the dirt. I had an urge to do this, you see.

No I am not an avid gardener, though I do enjoy a ripe, homegrown Sungold tomato as often as I can get them. I had another reason for my strange desire. I wanted to turn dirt into dust.

Let me explain.

Our lawn is so pathetic that it could turn a riding mower down a gravel road—and it often does. We care not about the clover and crabgrass, and wild strawberries, and hawkweed, and dandelions that grow there. Come fall the sparrows will relish the seed heads we let develop on these "weeds." We have an open arms policy, admitting anything that covers the bare soil, but that is not exotic and invasive. We battle creeping Charlie and pampas grass to the death. Our lawn, ratty as it would appear to the folks in the lawnscaping industry, is wonderfully diverse with tiny flowers, insects, grubs, birds, snakes, and other living things.

The soil below the grass is mostly poor: clay and bits of sandstone and shale. This as a result of nearly two centuries of farming and other human activities, plus the effects of weather and summer's baking sun. Poor soil quality means open patches where the grass cannot seem to grow. I've tried seeding these spots with grass seed and a bit of mushroom compost soil, but without fail, they fail.

Which brings me back to my early-morning soil clawing. If you can't lick 'em, join 'em. I spied a brown feather near one of the bare spots a week or so ago, and, realizing what that meant, asked Phoebe to get a garden claw (the short-handled implement used to scratch out weeds). I explained that I wanted her to loosen the dirt in the bare spot. She gave me a strange, puzzled look, then smiled and shook her head. Moments later, thanks to Phoebe's efforts, the bare spot was reduced to a pile of fine, dry dust.

The following afternoon, Phoebe surprised Julie with five separate brown feathers she'd found near the bare spot. They were from one or more brown thrashers that I had suspected were using the spot as a dust bath.

Last night, I noticed that all the dust had been swept out of the bare spot by the dust-bathing birds, so I made a mental note to start my day off this morning with a bit of dirt scratching.

Dust-bathing brown thrasher. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

Summer is the perfect time of year to create (or enhance) a dust bath in your yard. Find a bare spot of earth and scratch/dig/poke/kick it until it's loosened, then grind your shoe onto the dirt clods, reducing them to fine dust. Dust-bathing birds will squat down in the loose soil and shimmy-shake the dust through their feathers. This has the beneficial effect of driving feather mites out into the open where they can be preened away. Many birds dust bathe rather than bathing in water, including wild turkey, quail, some sparrows, thrashers—more than 200 species have been observed using "dirt to get clean."

I've tried to explain to Liam that this will not work for him.

I'm sure our brown thrashers found the refurbished dust bath and used it today—and maybe other songbirds, too. This makes me really happy. I'd wager it makes the thrashers happy, too. The feather mites getting evicted by the dust (and it's been a big year for the feather mites)—they're probably not so happy.


On July 16, 2009 at 12:24 AM Waxwing said...

Fantastic idea, BTB! I've focused on keeping my water birdbaths clean and filled but it never occurred to me to create a "dry birdbath", even though I've seen plenty of birds doing such behavior in dry dirt parking lots. As always, another reason to visit your blog for new insights.

On July 16, 2009 at 8:14 AM Anonymous said...

Love this post. What a great topic I've never seen covered elsewhere, and something most people probably never think about. Thank you for sharing all the things you do in your wonderful blog. I love your perspective and insight!

On July 16, 2009 at 9:46 AM Anonymous said...

I can now say to my husband that I'm not crazy for letting that dusty spot in the yard go! Someone else does it as well for the birds! Thank you for the wonderful post! I'm glad I'm not the only one that does this!

On July 17, 2009 at 12:19 AM Mary C said...

For the past 2 or 3 years, I've had the pleasure of watching several house sparrows dust bathing under our orange tree this time of year. And the amusing thing is that they blend in with the dirt which makes me first think I'm seeing the dirt move on its own. ;o)