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Do sea birds need fresh water?

Sent in by A Methven, Fife

Though they require less water than mammals, fresh and clean water is essential for birds to not only to drink but to also bathe in. Most birds scoop up water with their bills and then tilt their head and use gravity to allow the water to travel to their gut. Pigeons, however, drink in the same way as mammals do and suck up water against gravity.

Not all birds, however, have access to fresh water. Seabirds, such as albatrosses spend a great deal of their lives at sea away from fresh water and although they are very likely to drink fresh water if they do find it, they will, for the most part drink seawater.

Salt is poisonous to most birds as they are unable to process it. When Garden birds for example, eat salt, they soon become dehydrated and end up drinking more, which only makes the situation worse; salt intake can also affect their kidney function.

To cope with salt water, seabirds have evolved specialised glands that are found at the top of the beak between the eye socket and nostril. Both albatrosses and petrels have very pronounced external tubular nostrils and are often referred to as tubenoses. The salt glands of such seabirds pump chloride and sodium ions out of the bird’s blood stream into secretions, which then exit the bird’s body via the nostrils. This process takes the pressure off their kidneys.

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