Why Would a Bird Carry Water in Its Feathers?

This desert species' incredible adaptation was once considered a myth.

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Sandgrouse—pointy-tailed relatives of pigeons—live in some of the most parched environments on Earth. To satisfy the thirst of newly hatched chicks, male sandgrouse bring water back to the nest by carrying it in their feathers. It sounds incredible, and for decades, scientists thought it was just a myth. But it’s not. In the cool of the desert morning, the male flies up to 20 miles to a shallow water hole, then wades in up to his belly. 

The water is collected by “rocking.” The bird shifts its body side to side and repeatedly shakes the belly feathers in the water; fill-up can take as long as fifteen minutes. Thanks to coiled hairlike extensions on the feathers of the underparts, a sandgrouse can soak up and transport 25 milliliters of liquid. That’s close to two tablespoons.

Once the male has flown back across the desert with his life-giving cargo, the sandgrouse chicks crowd around him and use their bills like tiny squeegees, “milking” their father’s belly feathers for water they so desperately need.

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Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Great Gray Owl recorded by Sture Palmer; recorded by L J Peyton; ambient sound from Great Gray Owl recorded by D S Herr.
BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.
Producer: John Kessler
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Written by: Bob Sundstrom

© 2016 Tune In to Nature.org     January 2016     Narrator: Mary McCann