Why Birds Preen

Robbikal Adlim Tuesday, November 5, 2013
With the bird bath right in front of the Wild Birds Unlimited - East Lansing, MI store I get to watch a lot of birds take baths and then preen themselves. When birds use their bill to smooth or condition their feathers it is called preening. Well conditioned feathers help protect the birds against the harsh elements.

All birds have feathers and most birds have one main molt a year. It takes a lot of energy to grow feathers so birds have to maintain their feathers carefully for a year until they go through another molt.

A typical wing feather has a central shaft with the softer vanes on each side. These vanes consist of a series of parallel branches called barbs. Then extending from the barbs are a series of short branchlets called barbules. These barbules have minute hooks that lock together. As a result, this complex design creates a strong but light structure that repels water, insulates, and provides an aerodynamic shape.

With their beak, birds realign the barbs correctly, remove any dirt or parasites and sometimes apply preen oil. Most birds have a preen gland or uropygial gland at the base of the tail. The science is still unclear why birds apply the gland's oil to the feathers. It could be a conditioner, a repellant, or contain an odor to attract mates.

Birds can spend hours a day preening to keep their feathers in top condition. Watching a bird bending and stretching to reach all their feathers can be fun to watch but I also remember that feather maintenance is essential for their survival.

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