Songbirds have up to around 3,000 feathers, while the plumage of a swan contains up to 25,000. But have you ever wondered how, armed with only wings, a bill and their feet, birds are able to perform their meticulous daily grooming tasks required for both prime health and a dazzling appearance?
Read on as we take a look at the styling and grooming talents of the avian world.
After feeding, preening is the most widely observed regular behavior of backyard birds. They can spend a large percentage of their daily time budget grooming themselves, paying attention to each and every feather, and even sometimes helping out a mate with those hard-to-reach areas. So how can a Cardinal achieve a perfect quiff without the aid of a comb?
Birds are able to contort their bodies into the most unlikely positions in order to reach every single feather when preening. The arrangement and alignment of feathers is a fine art, with birds inherently knowing how to preen themselves to ensure that their plumage is in the ultimate condition for keeping warm, dry, capable of efficient flight, and even attractive or intimidating to other birds.
A pair of Northern Cardinals - After feeding, preening is the most widely observed regular behavior of backyard birds
Vital to effective preening in birds is a feature that most of us will never have seen, as it is usually tucked away beneath the plumage at the base of a bird’s tail.
Known as the uropygial gland, the small openings of this anatomical feature allow birds to access secretions of preen oil, which is then applied to their feathers using their bills, to ensure their entire plumage is well maintained.
Despite not being a prominent visual feature of many bird species, the role of the uropygial gland is crucial to avian survival and general health. Covered by a featherless patch of skin, the gland stores an oily substance that consists of waxes and fatty acids.
Birds collect the oils secreted by the gland using their bill, known as preen oil and transfer it to each and every feather, feather shaft, and their interlocking barbules (the hooks and grooves that are integral to the arrangement and positioning of feathers) during the preening process.
Coating their feathers in preen oil serves multiple purposes that are essential to a bird’s health and survival. The key function of this process is to repel water from a bird’s feathers, preventing them from becoming waterlogged, as wet feathers can leave a bird struggling to fly or keep warm.
A coating of preen oil also helps to maintain the flexibility of a bird’s feathers, which enables smooth and effective flight. The oily coating offers protection against friction and damage during flight.
Preen oil also carries the benefit of natural antibacterial properties that prevent infections and help birds remove any parasites or lice from their feathers.
The uropygial gland is present in most birds, from tiny Hummingbirds to much larger waterfowl, including Geese and Swans, but there is considerable variation in the size and amount of oil secreted, depending on the needs and habitat of each species.
Waterfowl, including Ducks, Geese and Swans, have a particularly large and active uropygial gland due to their constant need for waterproofed feathers. Gulls, Herons, Egrets, Pelicans and Albatrosses also rely heavily on preen oil for feather maintenance due to their frequent exposure to water.
Some smaller bird species, particularly those living in drier habitats, including Sparrows, Warblers and Finches, have less prominent and active uropygial glands, as they do not have as great a need for a water-repellant plumage, and their feathers may not need as intense maintenance due to the shorter distances they travel.
Pelicans rely heavily on preen oil for feather maintenance due to their frequent exposure to water
Birds’ bills are crucial tools in the avian preening process, used to arrange and align their feathers into position for effective insulation and flight and to reach preen oil from the uropygial gland needed to coat each individual feather to ensure their plumage is evenly covered.
Keep reading to discover more about a bird’s bill, which is an important tool for feather care.
The primary purpose of a bird’s bill is eating, from catching and dissecting prey, pecking at grains or seeds or plucking berries and fruits from trees and bushes. However, a secondary function of bills and beaks is almost as vital to a bird’s daily life.
Serving as a substitute comb, beaks are used to arrange each feather into position, to pick out parasites or lice, to remove dust or dirt and to distribute preen oils evenly throughout a bird’s plumage.
Birds with shorter beaks may find it more challenging to reach all areas of their bodies than birds that have longer or more pointed bills. They use their tongues alongside their beaks to pick off any dirt in their plumage and may be seen to vigorously shake or fluff out their feathers to shake off any excess dirt or dust.
Birds may sometimes be spotted wiping their bills on their own feathers after eating or drinking, which serves the double purpose of aligning the feathers on their wings or necks.
Some birds may engage in mutual grooming, which helps to clean areas of the plumage that are out of reach alone, for example, the neck and back of the head. Birds that regularly engage in mutual preening, known as allopreening, include Herons, Egrets and Crows. As well as helping to keep each other’s plumage in top condition, mutual grooming is a common behavior among bird pairs that are strongly bonded.
Woodpeckers and Hummingbirds make use of their bristled tongues and saliva to groom their feathers, which helps to extract any bugs or stray flakes of nectar from their plumage.
Pigeons and Doves use a ‘zipping’ technique, running their bill along the feather shafts and effectively locking them into position alongside each other.
An Acorn Woodpecker preening - They make use of their bristled tongues and saliva to groom their feathers
For humans, the bathing choices are pretty simple: a bath, a shower or a quick wash. In the bird world, a wider range of cleansing and preening techniques exist, with many species developing their own favored approach to keeping well groomed. Read on to learn about avian styling tips.
Not all birds clean and preen in the same way due to their anatomical differences and habitat variations. Depending on where they live and the availability of water sources, bird bathing techniques may range from a quick paddle and flick in a shallow puddle or bird bath, to a series of progressive dunkings along the edge of a lake to full-on submersion beneath the surface of a lake or ocean.
Aerial birds, such as Swifts, Swallows and Martins, tend to clean and preen on the go, swooping briefly to take on moisture while skimming the surface of a lake or pool. Several birds are not anatomically built for anything other than passive bathing and will make the most of wet weather, spreading their wings and soaking up moisture as soon as rain starts falling.
Backyard birds can frequently be observed dipping into bird baths, showering themselves and their flockmates with water droplets and then taking advantage of the moisture to soften their feathers to give their plumage a thorough preen.
Waterbirds may submerge themselves fully below the surface of their lake or pond before using their beak to groom their way around their body, ensuring that every feather has been given the necessary preening attention to remain in prime condition.
In particularly arid conditions, some birds have evolved without a conventionally functioning uropygial gland, as they have no need for waterproofed feathers. Instead, other techniques, including dust bathing, are used to maintain the condition of their feathers.
One such species is the flightless Kakapo Parrot, native to New Zealand. Rarely exposed to moisture and unable to fly, regular application of preen oil is unnecessary for a healthy plumage. Instead, a waxy substance is secreted, and dust baths are used to dislodge any parasites or excess debris.
Bee-eaters, Ostriches, Quail, Guinea Fowl and Wild Turkeys are particularly partial to dust-bathing rather than cleansing their plumage in pools or puddles.
Wild Turkeys are particularly partial to dust-bathing rather than cleansing their plumage in pools or puddles
Bathing and preening are a major part of a bird’s daily routine and vital for maintaining good health and functioning feathers. Where resources in their local habitats may be limited, some birds adapted to take an inventive approach to their daily ablutions or scratching a hard-to-reach itch. Read on to learn more!
Birds have adapted some ingenious methods for keeping themselves well groomed, incorporating naturally available resources found in their habitats into their bathing and preening regimes. In regions where water sources may be limited, dust bathing is particularly widespread.
Small birds may take advantage of dew or raindrops that have gathered on leaves or in puddles for moisture as an alternative to a deeper or more substantial dip.
Anting is a more specialized behavior witnessed in some birds, including Flickers, Woodpeckers, Crows, Owls and Wild Turkeys. Research is inconclusive as to exactly why some birds might choose to deliberately rub ants all over their bodies, but one theory is that it spreads the formic acid produced by ants over their plumage, which helps to remove parasites.
In more unusual cases, birds have been observed making use of natural objects while grooming, including Puffins and Parrots using sticks to dislodge ticks.
As urban sprawl increases and birds are adapting to live alongside humans, it is unsurprising that human-made structures have become a staple feature of the bathing and grooming routines of many species.
In the absence of natural ponds and pools, a bird bath topped up with fresh water is a welcome addition to a backyard, not only to meet a bird’s daily hydration needs but also to play a key role in their ability to look after their plumage.
Darting underneath sprinklers in a garden – or even on a golf course – is also a popular way of cooling off on a hot day, but also offers a quick burst of moisture needed for preening.
Car mirrors or the windows of houses also feature in some birds’ grooming routines, but not in the same way as we might pose in front of a mirror and check if our hair is straight or our face is clean. Spotting their own reflection in a mirror or window may trigger preening activity in birds, thinking they are face-to-face with a potential mate or rival.
An Australian Magpie looking at its own reflection in a car mirror
Survival without well-groomed plumage is challenging, if not impossible, for most birds. Feathers need to be in a decent condition for flying and foraging, and for keeping warm, dry and pest-free.
Where clean water is not available, species have learned to adapt to their surroundings and make use of a number of adaptations to give themselves the best chance of survival. Keep reading to find out how.
Feathers aren’t just for the sake of an attractive appearance to win a potential mate. Feather condition is just as important as colorful plumage, if not even more so.
Bathing and preening by any means possible are something a bird cannot afford to ignore, with daily patterns of ridding any unwanted dirt particles and excess oil being vital for both immediate and long-term health.
Providing safe, shallow bird baths, topped up regularly with fresh water, is a key contribution humans can make to the grooming and preening process in birds.
Where possible, maintaining access to natural water sources can also assist birds to continue their natural preening activities. Humans play no direct role in bird preening but can make a positive difference by removing artificial hazards from their habitats and ensuring that water sources are pollutant and litter-free.
House Finches - Providing safe, shallow bird baths, topped up regularly with fresh water, is a key contribution humans can make to the grooming and preening process in birds
Bathing and preening are essential behaviors for all birds to ensure flight efficiency, insulation, and overall feather health. Different species have evolved and adapted their own physical limitations or changes in their habitats to ensure that a healthy set of feathers always remains at the top of their priority list.
To the untrained eye, bird bathing may seem a mundane act, with birds simply bobbing into a bird bath or hopping around on a lawn during a light shower.
Watch the routine bathing and preening processes, and it’s possible to piece together the different steps that will help you appreciate just how important it is for a bird to follow its own routine to keep its feathers clean.
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