If you’ve ever been around birds, you might have noticed that they spend quite a lot of time ruffling around in their feathers. That ruffling is called preening, but why do birds preen their feathers?
A bird preening its feathers is incredibly important to their health and well-being, so important that without it, they wouldn’t even be able to fly! If you went a few days without bathing you might start to smell, but it certainly wouldn’t affect your ability to walk.
Preening isn’t just about cleanliness for a bird, in fact, it serves three main purposes, cleaning, waterproofing and streamlining.
A bird preens their feather to remove any small particles that may have gotten into them. Dirt and dust aren’t the only things a bird removes when they’re preening though, they also remove small parasites that might be trying to take up residence on their feathers.
Body lice and feather parasites can be a real problem for a bird, they can lead to a scruffy appearance or even destroyed feathers!
And a scruffy appearance might mean more to your bird then you’d first suspect because a sleek bird with clean, shiny feathers is prime material for a mate! Like people, birds tend to want to look their best for the opposite gender.
Besides allowing most birds to fly (obviously), feathers also serve the important function of insulating a bird so that they can conserve body heat, and protecting the bird from rain and weather.
Many birds have a gland located on their back just at the base of their tail called a preen gland (Uropygial gland). This gland secretes an oily substance full of natural waxes that a bird will rub on their face and beak. They will then run the oil along each of their feathers when preening to help create a waterproof barrier between their feathers and the elements.
There are a few species of birds that don’t have a preen gland at all. Instead, these birds have a highly specialized type of feathers called powder down feathers. Powder down feathers are covered in a brittle sheath of keratin that a bird can break up during preening to create a sort of dust that provides them with a lesser degree of waterproofing than their cousins with preen glands.
Interestingly, Old World birds from the Eastern Hemisphere like African Grey Parrots, Cockatiels, and Cockatoos are more likely to have powder down feathers because the evolved in a more arid environment, while their New World, Western Hemisphere cousins are more likely to have preen glands, due to the humid tropical climate. Western Hemisphere birds don’t all have preen glands though, Amazon Parrots and Hyacinth Macaws are two of only a few tropical New World birds that don’t have one.
Special Note for Allergy Sufferers. While all birds are a little dusty and can aggravate someone with sensitive or severe allergies, powder down birds produce a large amount of dust and can be too much even for people with mild allergies. Please spend some time around powder down birds before you decide to purchase one, to be sure you won’t have an allergic reaction.
Dusty, powder down birds have also been known to cause respiratory problems in New World birds. Blue and Gold Macaws are especially susceptible because of their highly sensitive respiratory tract, so don’t house dusty birds together with new world birds.
As if birds weren’t already accomplishing enough with their preening, they also use this activity to align every feather on their body for maximum streamlined efficiency.
My favorite part of this streamlining process is when a bird “zips” up their feathers, and that process has to do with the structure of the feathers themselves.
If you zoom in really far and look at a bird’s feather, you’ll see that each of the barbs that form off of the main shaft of the feather are covered in smaller barbules. These barbules (and even smaller, microscopic barbicels) have tiny hooks at the end that keep the feather smoothly locked together, much like Velcro locks together. This keeps every feather smooth and streamlined for flight efficacy.
Over the course of the day, the little hooks can become unfasted from one another, so a bird will “zip” up their feathers during preening by running the broad side of their beak along each feather, re-attaching all the little hooks.
When a bird zips up their feathers, they might not actually make a “zip” noise, but they certainly make sure all of their feathers are in tip-top shape!
Down to the Last Feather
Birds tend to spend almost as much time preening as they do gathering food. It’s a vital piece of a bird’s life and learning a little more about the process can give you a new window into your bird’s perspective.
Now that you’ve learned a little more about bird preening, I hope you can walk away from this article with a greater understanding about just what your bird is accomplishing when it’s ruffling around in its feathers! If you’re interested in learning more about bird behavior and training, check out these books!
Awesome information about birds exits all over the web if you know where to look, so of you’re interested in learning more, check out my references list!