Drinking birds

on 6th December 2010

I am not writing about birds drinking and getting drunk, although they do imbibe and get drunk after eating fermented fruits, as seen HERE and HERE.

What I am writing about is birds drinking water. Like all animals, they need water to survive. This water comes from three sources: free water, moisture in food and metabolic water formed during cellular respiration. Very few birds depend entirely on the last source but most get their water from the food they eat.

Birds also drink from rain puddles, streams, ponds or lakes. If you have observed a Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) drinking, you will notice it dipping its bill into the water and then raising it head so that the water can drip into its throat (above). Such behaviour is also seen in the Javan Myna (Acridotheres javanicus) (below left). This is because most birds are unable to suck water in.

But not doves and pigeons. The Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis) dips its bill into the water and sucks it in. It does not need to raise its head as with other birds.

Among North American birds, only doves and pigeons are capable of suctioning water. But how about Southeast Asian birds? Do our local birdwatchers know of any other birds drinking like these doves and pigeons?

YC Wee
December 2010

Temple, S. A., 2004. Individuals, populations, and communities: The ecology of birds. In: Podulka, S., R. W. Jr. Rohrbaugh & R. Bonney (eds.), Handbook of bird biology. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Pp 9.1-134.
2. Wells, J. V. & A. C. Wells, 2001. Pigeons and doves. In: Elphick, C., J. B. Dunning & D. A. Sibley (eds.), The sibley guide to bird life and behavior. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. Pp. 319-325.

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

Other posts by YC Wee

9 Responses

  1. Parrots and parrot-like birds appear able to drink without having to throw back their heads to allow water to flow into their throats. Lories and Lorikeets, which feed on nectar, lap water with their tongues.

    This characteristic might not come as a surprise to those who have been following the discussions that, apart from the big difference in beak and foot structures (ouch!) parrots and pigeons are actually physiologically similar, and could be related.

    Both families feed their young with crop milk. Both have powder down in their feathers. And within the family, there are many species that exhibit social behaviour and display strong pair bonds.

  2. I might not agree totally with Chiu San. Having bred and managed parrots for sometime now, i noticed that African greys, Galah cockatoos, Amazons and even the rigneck parakeets all drink in similar fashion; scoop water up and throw back their head to swallow it. Lories are the exception. They have backward facing papillae or bristles on their tongue to help scoop/brush up nectar while feeding. The very muscular tongue of parrot species is adept for manipulating food items before eating them.

    I have not known of any parrot species that produce crop milk. I may be wrong. But as far as I recall, only the flamingo and pigeon/dove species are capable of producing crop milk. Greys and Cockatoos produce lots of powder down but the Eclectus parrot and the Pasquet do not seem to have them. Again, I may have over looked this.

    Columbiformes and Psittaciformes are two very distinct orders. Although the parrot affinities remain obscure, they may be closely related to pigeons and doves and even the cuckoo. While the pigeons and dove are possibly related to the Charadriiformes through the sandgrouse (Pteroclidiformes). The sequence of these orders is mainly based on tradition and not strong evidence of genealogy. (*See Gill,1989. Ornithology)

    Are you still active in aviculture Chiu San =)

  3. Nectar feeders like sunbirds may have backward pointing papillae at the tip of their tongues for nectar feeding, but this does not mean that they can also drink by suction. Does Haniman implies that lorries drink by ‘suction’?

  4. No YC. From my observation of captive specimens, Lories drink by moving their tongue in and out of the beak, brushing/scooping nectar into it. The tongue extends when feeding on nectar. They do not drink by suction motion. Occasionally i have seen them scooping water and throwing their head back to swallow it. I’m guessing the bird uses different technique when comsuming food items of different consistency. Nectar or food with thicker consistency will be consumed using the ‘scooping’technique with the papillae. Water, less denser, can be consumed by scooping up with the beak and throwing the head back.

  5. Dear Haniman,

    Thanks for your reasoned and erudite comments on my post.

    Among the parrot-like birds, I have had the most experience with lories, and can say without hesitation that they drink with their heads in all positions. I am not prepared to say that the liquid eventually enters their stomaches through suction. You might have a valid point saying that they literally throw liquid down their throats through vigorous lapping.

    On the issue of crop milk, we know that many birds feed their young through regurgitation. Perhaps you can enlighten us as to what is being regurgitated? In the case of pigeons and doves, I understand that it is a secretion of the crop lining. In the case of parrots? Is it a special secretion, or simply semi-digested food?

    As for the relationship between parrots and doves, I have found it mentioned in avicultural books. Thanks for your more scientific explanation, which does not entirely rule out the relationship.

    Having retired and sold my house, I no longer maintain a series of breeding aviaries. However, some of my favourite birds are now boarding with a friend, who will keep them until I decide on a new permanent home.

    Keep up your stimulating comments which force me to examine and reconsider what I think I know.

  6. Hi Chui San

    I guess we are all on the learning curve when it comes to animal behaviours. But its interesting to hear your side of the explanation.

    As far as i know, parrots regurgitate solid food to feed their chicks. The consistency is usually mashed up so that its more palatable for the chicks. For dove and pigeon, you’re right, there is a gland on the crop lining that triggers the bird to secrete crop milk. Its meant to feed chicks on the 1st few days or week after hatching before the chicks are ready to take solid food.

    Well maybe when you eventually have the time and space, i hope you continue with your hobby as i do mine =)

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