Backyard birds can frequently be seen arranging their feathers with their beaks, smoothing their wings and tails, and plucking at their chests. This process, known as preening, is not purely a vanity exercise, but serves a vital purpose in maintaining the long-term health of a bird’s plumage.
So why do birds preen, and how often do they need to take care of their feathers in this way? Keep reading to find out!
Preening is the regular, essential grooming practiced by birds to keep their feathers clean, healthy, and strong. Birds’ feathers need to be in top condition for efficient flight and to ensure they can regulate their body temperatures and keep dry in wet weather.
Healthy feathers are the key to a bird’s survival, necessary for flight, warmth, waterproofing and thermoregulation. With up to 25,000 feathers, it is clear that adaptations are needed to ensure plumage remains in optimum condition at all times. Birds possess specific anatomical features to facilitate this necessary feather-care regime.
The uropygial gland, located near the base of the tail of many bird species, secretes an oily, waxy substance that birds apply to their own feathers to protect them from damage, dirt and saturation. Some species lack this gland, but instead produce a powder-like substance that serves a similar purpose of protection and cleansing.
Keep reading if you’re interested in finding out more about the grooming habits of birds, and how they keep themselves – and occasionally their mates – in prime condition by preening.
A male red-winged blackbird preening its feathers
Preening takes many forms, as birds use a variety of methods to keep their plumage free from dirt and parasites and that individual feathers are fully coated in the necessary substances to ensure they are fully water-resistant in case of rain.
The uropygial gland, at the base of the tail of most bird species, produces a waxy substance, commonly known as ‘preen oil’. Birds apply this substance evenly to every feather; coating their plumage with this oil has the dual benefit of water-proofing and improving flexibility.
Dust baths are a common way of absorbing any excess oil that has been applied to feathers from the preening gland. Too much of the oily coating can lead to matted feathers and a loss of efficiency when flying.
By covering their feathers in dry dust, oily particles are then soaked up and easier for the bird to shed. Birds commonly associated with dust baths include sparrows and ostriches.
European Goldfinch perched on a tree branch preening feathers
Preening ranks as the most frequent activity a bird engages in, alongside feeding. Large amounts of a bird’s day are devoted to feather care.
Daily preening tasks include regular dust baths, the arrangement and rearrangement of their own feathers and each other’s in mutual grooming, and ensuring their entire plumage is sufficiently coated with oil from their uropygial gland.
Allopreening is mutual grooming, seen in both breeding pairs and between individual members of a flock in certain social bird species. Birds cooperate to preen each other, allowing the hardest-to-reach feathers of a bird’s face and neck to be groomed with the care and cleansing they require.
Preening between flock members is largely a social activity, bonding individuals to a larger group. Allopreening (or allogrooming) in breeding pairs enhances a bond that has formed between a male and female, and may form part of a courtship ritual.
A pair of Rainbow Lorikeets preening each other
Mutual preening is frequently seen in social bird species that are often kept in captivity as aviary birds, including parrots, cockatiels, lorikeets, and lovebirds. In the wild, vultures, ducks, spoonbills, and parrots are among species that partake in allogrooming.
Allopreening between breeding pairs is commonly seen in species that raise young together, as a method of strengthening their bond. Where mated pairs have been separated for long periods of time, mutual grooming forms an important part of their greeting when they are reunited.
One such example is when a female penguin reunites with her male partner after she has been absent for several weeks while hunting at sea.
Green-winged Teal preening on the water
Some species, such as parrots, owls, hawks, and pigeons do not have the same uropygial gland used by the majority of other bird species to apply a waxy coating to each feather during their regular preening sessions.
However, they possess a different “preening” adaptation that allows them to stay on top of all the necessary feather care requirements. These birds have feathers that disintegrate into a powdery down, which is then applied by a preening bird in the same way.
Flightless birds, including kiwis, ostriches, emus, and cassowaries, do not have a uropygial gland, and preen in different ways, including taking frequent dust baths to protect and cleanse their feathers.
Ostriches take dust baths to protect and cleanse their feathers
Preening is a necessary and instinctive activity for all birds and is essential for good health and strong feathers, rather than an indication of a bird’s mood. However, if a pet bird begins to neglect its daily grooming regime, it could be a warning sign that they are in poor health or might be in need of specialist medical attention or additional stimulation.
Parrots may engage in excessive feather-plucking activity when highly stressed. Over=preening is one symptom of a stressed, anxious or bored bird.
Owls preen themselves using both their beaks and talons. They do not have a uropygial gland that secretes ‘preen oil’ used in self-grooming by many bird species. Instead, they have feathers that break down into a powdery substance that is used in preening. Owls’ need for waterproofing is lower than that of other species, and the powder offers sufficient protection and cleansing properties needed for a healthy plumage.
Perched Short-eared Owl preening its feathers
It is common for chickens to collectively preen each other, and this behavior is particularly seen in younger chicks.
Mated pairs of ducks will frequently practice mutual preening, also known as allopreening, particularly during the breeding season. Grooming each other’s feathers is thought to be a way of strengthening the bond formed by a breeding pair.
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