The key feature of a desert is its lack of water. But how do animals stay clean? They still need to get rid of dirt, germs, bugs and parasites.
This story began for me on the Continental Divide, the line of ranges that divide the Rocky Mountains watersheds into those that flow toward the Mississippi River and those that flow toward the Pacific Ocean. Standing on the back porch of my childhood home, the Continental Divide was a mere half mile north and was our playground. Regina, New Mexico lays at about 6000 foot elevation, 100 miles north of Albuquerque. Scrub brush fills this high desert area.
My father ran cattle, but he leased national forest lands to fatten up the spring calves and rounded them up for the sale ring before winter storms hit. Our most important asset was water rights to the Hatch Lake, which allowed some irrigation of fields and planting of some grasses.
I remember playing with horny toads, building corrals for them from scrap bits of wood. They always escaped, of course. It was a dry climate, with dusty roads, rare days of rain, and harsh winters.
Fast forward to a couple years ago when I heard about birds who anoint themselves with ants to get rid of parasites. What? This is strange, but true. For over 100 years, naturalists have observed birds that stand on an ant nest and let ants swarm over them. Studies have revealed that birds are allowing ants to carry off parasites. Other birds will locate an ant nest, then pick up an ant in its beak, crush it and use it as a washrag to clean its feathers. Scientists believe the formic acid from the ant acts as an antiseptic to kill and discourage parasites.
When I learned of this anointing behavior, I remembered the dry landscape of my childhood. I wondered what were some other ways that animals stayed clean? After a lot of research and multiple drafts, the result was Desert Baths, a companion book to my first nature book, Prairie Storms.
For both books, I wanted to do more than just talk about a species. Instead, I wanted to add an extra layer of information, while still keeping the story fun to read. For Prairie Storms, the extra layer was the variety of storms throughout a year. For Desert Baths, the extra layer is animal hygiene.
Take a peek at Desert Baths:
And Prairie Storms
Here are some possible discussion questions to share with your children after reading Desert Baths.
- Is regular hygiene easy or hard for you?
- Do you need to be reminded to brush your teeth?
- Do you resist baths?
- How would it affect your health if you didn't bathe and clean yourself regularly?
Published in eight languages, children’s book author and writing teacher Darcy Pattison is the author of picture books and novels. Her three nature books include Prairie Storms (Sylvan Dell), Desert Baths (Sylvan Dell) and Wisdom, the Midway Albatross: Surviving the Japanese Tsunami and Other Disasters for over 60 Years (Mims House). For more, see her website.