Birds can frequently be seen almost obsessively tugging at their feathers, then smoothing and stroking their plumage, while pecking dust particles, mites and other debris from their wings, tails and backs.
For birds, this intense grooming activity has nothing to do with vanity or appearance, but is a vital process for maintaining the condition of their feathers and their overall health.
Read on to learn just how important regular preening is for birds.
A preening bird can twist itself into the most unlikely body contortions as it attempts to reach every individual feather during its routine grooming sessions. Aside from feeding and foraging, preening and grooming activities account for the largest share of a bird’s daily behavior.
Using its bill and feet to extract lice and mites, to straighten and position feather shafts, and to smooth out ruffled feathers, a bird’s grooming regime can be fascinating to study. But why do birds need to spend so much time on self-care?
Well, it’s not entirely an act of conceit or self-obsession for a bird to devote so much time to looking after its plumage. In fact, a bird’s entire survival depends on the health and condition of its feathers.
Feathers that are sodden with water, coated in mud or ridden with parasites will make it challenging to fly and maintain a regular body temperature. Birds that preen regularly remove these challenges and give themselves an increased chance of a healthy life.
A Eurasian Kingfisher - A bird’s entire survival depends on the health and condition of its feathers
After birds finish bathing, it’s usual for an intense period of preening to follow. A bird’s entire plumage undergoes a thorough and methodical routine of grooming, combing, nibbling, tweaking, twisting and tugging, as they position their feathers exactly where they want them. But just what does the preening process entail, and why is it so important?
Preening is usually a natural follow-on task after bathing. After a dip, birds’ feathers are softened by the water and become easier to manipulate. Coating clean feathers in oils, dust, or even ants, is a key part of the grooming process, which helps to soak up any excess moisture and remove any parasites that may still be present on the skin or feathers.
Excess water can weigh a bird down, leaving it vulnerable to poor flight and health issues that arise from saturated feathers, including hypothermia and an inability to maintain a stable body temperature.
Applying oils after bathing, and then methodically working these waxy substances into the surface of each and every individual feather helps to ensure that their plumage is fully water-resistant, giving them an increased chance of survival in poor weather.
A Northern Shoveler preening while floating on the pond
A beak is a bird’s most useful body part when it comes to the preening process, and serves the purpose of a comb, a flannel, tweezers and a scrubbing brush all rolled into one.
But what about the parts that even the longest bill can’t reach? Read on to find out more about the physical techniques birds have mastered to keep their feathers in prime condition.
The beak is a bird’s ultimate grooming tool and is used to peck at and remove any specks of dust or debris that may be present in their feathers. By twisting their neck into various contortions, birds are able to reach most – but not all – body parts.
As you may imagine, the face, head and neck are particularly problematic, even for the birds with the longest bills. In these cases, a combination of balance and determination to cover every inch of their body kicks in, with feet and toes being used to ‘scratch-preen’ any hard-to-access spots.
If you spot a bird running its beak through its plumage after bathing, what you’re witnessing is likely to be it distributing a waxy coating across all of its feathers, to restore and renew their waterproofing and insulating properties.
A special anatomical feature tucked away at the base of a bird’s tail, the uropygial gland stores secretions of an oily substance known as preen oil, which promotes feather maintenance when applied to a bird’s plumage and boosts water resistance and insulating properties of each individual feather.
Several bird species, including some Owls and Hawks, do not have a typical uropygial gland. Instead, their plumage includes some specialized powder-down feathers that serve the same purpose as preen oil. These feathers break down into a fine powder and work in the same way as a dust bath, cleansing any excess oils, debris and parasites from their plumage.
“Anting” is another cleansing act that some birds may engage in as part of their preening regime, although the exact reasons why are not fully clear.
Woodpeckers and Flickers are two species that are particularly likely to engage in anting, spreading their feathers and rubbing ants throughout their plumage. The formic acid carried by ants is believed to have antibacterial properties, which help to prevent infestation by parasites.
A Red-tailed Hawk preening its feathers - Several bird species, including some Owls and Hawks, do not have a typical uropygial gland
Preening isn’t purely for the purpose of standing out as the best-groomed bird in the flock, although regular preening does have an influence on a bird’s ability to attract a mate. A healthy plumage can be a particularly sought-after quality when choosing a breeding partner, but many other aspects of a bird’s health and survival depend on its ability to care for its own plumage.
Read on to find out more about the purpose behind preening.
On average, up to 30 percent of a bird’s daily time budget is spent on preening. With such a major proportion of their time and energy used on the task, it’s clear that regular preening is a valuable act for their day-to-day survival and health.
Healthy feathers are crucial to effective flight, and birds instinctively know how to arrange and position their feathers on their body, using their bills, to ensure they are streamlined and able to quickly switch into flight mode.
After bathing, feathers are moisturized which enables more flexibility when flying and any impurities that are loosened during bathing can then be easily picked off as a bird methodically grooms itself.
Preen oil applied during grooming from a hidden gland at the base of a bird’s tail coats a bird’s entire plumage from the shaft to the tip of each feather in a waxy protective substance that repels water, preventing birds from becoming waterlogged and causing their body temperatures to drop due to ineffective insulation.
A bright, vivid plumage is a sign of a healthy bird, with strong genes that would be desirable to pass on to future offspring. Vibrant feathers are also more effective at driving off predators or making a statement against rivals that a territory or mate has been claimed. Regular grooming ahead of the breeding season enables males to display the best versions of themselves to potential mates.
Male Peacocks’ grooming displays are particularly impressive and elaborate, as they focus on each individual long tail feather from base to root, combing through their entire plumage with meticulous care, dipping their head around to reach their back and tail before puffing themselves up to their full and unforgettable glory.
Male Peacocks’ grooming displays are particularly impressive and elaborate, as they focus on each individual long tail feather from base to root
Every bird species needs to engage in some degree of daily preening to keep their plumage healthy. However, just as there is a huge variation in birds’ anatomical features, habitats and lifestyles, preening techniques also differ significantly from one species to another.
Learn more about some of the varying techniques used by birds to style their plumage below.
The vast range of anatomical differences between bird species naturally results in a wide variety of preening techniques. Equipped with only beaks, feet and wings, it’s not always easy to reach every single part of the body that needs to be preened, and different species have developed specific grooming methods to solve such problems.
Try as they might, it’s impossible for a bird to apply preen oil to its own head with its bill. Instead, some species, including Parrots and Parakeets, apply the oil from their uropygial gland to their feet and then use these to scratch their head feathers, grooming their faces, necks and other impossible-to-reach places.
Owls, Herons and Nighthawks have a pectinate claw, a toe with a serrated underside which is often used as a substitute comb for grooming the face.
The long bills and barbed tongues of Woodpeckers and Hummingbirds double-up as grooming tools, with the barbed edges ideal for extracting any lice or dust particles that may be trapped in their feathers.
Communal preening, also known as allopreening, is used by mated pairs of some bird species, as a form of greeting or strengthening their bond. Albatrosses and penguins groom each other when reunited after a period apart, using their bills to tidy feathers on each others’ heads and faces.
Allopreening is practiced by larger groups of certain colonial bird species, including Guillemots, some Parrots, and Brown-headed Cowbirds.
Where groups of social birds live closely together, grooming each other’s hard-to-reach feathers builds a sense of social cohesion and leads to a harmonious coexistence for the whole flock.
Pair of African Penguins - Communal preening, also known as allopreening, is used by mated pairs of some bird species, as a form of greeting or strengthening their bond
Rather than an act of pure vanity, preening in birds is a survival mechanism which has evolved to protect their ability to fly, thermoregulate and remain healthy.
Find out below how the actions of preening birds may be misinterpreted or wrongly aligned with human values.
Pairs of lovebirds snuggled up together on a branch is a common theme on greeting cards or wall art, conveying thoughts of a sweet, romantic pairing. In reality, rather than an indication of romantic smooching, lovebirds are actually preening each other’s plumage.
Similarly, the prehistoric silhouette of a Cormorant on a tree top with its wings outstretched is not a symbol of intimidation or dominance but instead, a technique used to dry its wings in the sun after bathing.
Peacocks, sometimes depicted as haughty, arrogant or even vain, due to the amount of time spent on self-care and meticulous grooming, are actually simply engaging in a necessary preening routing, carefully attending to each feather to ensure that they are in prime health.
A pair of Rosy-faced Lovebirds preening each other
Regular preening ensures that a bird’s feathers remain in prime condition. Grooming removes any dirt or debris, enabling efficient and smooth flight. Coating feathers in preen oil keeps a bird’s plumage waterproofed and able to insulate effectively against cold weather.
An added benefit of extensive and methodical self-care displayed by preening birds is a clean, vibrant appearance which leads to an enhanced chance of finding a mate.
Preening birds make wonderful photography subjects, and capturing their intricate grooming rituals – from the delicate feather fluffing and plumage-stroking of sparrows and robins to the grand outstretched wings of a mute swan, gracefully preening as it glides across a lake – offers a valuable insight into the daily routines that observers of the avian world often overlook.
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