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BirdNote: The Feathers that Carry Water

Air Date: Week of

Burchell's Sandgrouse (Photo: Ian White, Flickr CC)

The Feathers that Carry Water: Living in water-poor environments is a challenge for many species, but as BirdNote’s Mary McCann reports, male Sandgrouse use an ingenious method and his feathers to carry water for miles back to the nest.



CURWOOD: Water is vital for all life – but it’s not always available where you need it. And as Mary McCann explains in today’s BirdNote®, sometimes it’s the male of the species that takes on responsibility for the supply.


Sandgrouse - Desert Watercarriers

[Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse (3869) 01:07 and following]

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 twenty miles to a shallow water hole, then wades in up to his belly.

[Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse (3868) 01:10 and following]

Burchell's Sandgrouse takes flight, carrying water in his feathers. (Photo: Ian White, Flickr CC)

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.

[Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse (3869) 02:29 and following]

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.

I’m Mary McCann.

[Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse (3869) 02:29 and following]

Written by Rick Wright

Sandgrouse chicks “milk” the adult male’s feathers for water. (Photo: Steve Garvie, Flickr CC)

Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse [3868] by Myles E.W North; Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse [3869] by Myles E.W. North.

BirdNote's theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.

Producer: John Kessler

Executive Producer: Dominic Black

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


CURWOOD: You’ll find pictures of these ingenious watercarriers at our website, LOE.org.



More about the Sandgrouse and its ability to carry water

Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse Pterocles exustus

Burchell's Sandgrouse Pterocles burchelli


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