The Mechanics and Methods Of Preening

There Is More To Preening Than Meets The Eye

Preening Sun Conure
Steve Clancy Photography/Getty Images

The one thing that defines a bird is the fact that if it has feathers is indeed a bird. Caring for these feathers, sometimes up to 25,000 of them on one bird is a pretty big job. But it’s an important one as those feathers have a variety of essential duties that the bird relies on for survival. 
In order to keep the feather clean, “zipped” and orderly, a bid has to preen her feathers. Birds perform this behavior as often as needed and this sometimes occurs several times a day depending on the amount of activity the bird is engaged in.

But what is a bird actually doing when it is preening?
Preening is simply grooming the feathers. What the bird is doing when it is preening is picking out any dust or dirt particles off her plumage, looking for any parasites that might be on the loose somewhere and lining each feather up so this it is perfectly aligned to the feather next to it. This optimizes the several purposes of the feathers. 
You will often see some birds reach back to their tails and pick at the base or rub their faces near the base of the tail. 
The uropygial gland (pronounced: yoo r-uh-pij-ee-uhl) is found at the base of the tail of some birds. This gland secretes an oily discharge made up of water resistant diester waxesthat help form a watertight coating onto the bird's feathers as well as aiding in keeping those feathers pliable and flexible. 
The bird rubs her face and beak on the gland which stimulates it and it secretes these waxes onto the bird’s face and beak.

When the bird continues preening, the oil is distributed on all of the surfaces of the feathers. 
Preening is a very important part of a bird’s survival. It aligns the feathers for optimum flight. Flight is a huge part of their survival as it is their main method of escaping a predator. It also is their method of transportation to find food, to locate water sources and and to return to their flock.

This feather alignment makes flying more efficient as it returns the bird to a more aerodynamic shape which reduces drag and makes the act of flying less taxing on the bird. 

Looking for and removing any parasites hidden among the plumage reduces that chance that those parasites will destroy the feathers or give the bird a disease. This also reduces the chance that the bird will pass them on to other birds or her offspring or mate. 

Chipping off the keratin sheaths from newly forming feathers helps align the new feathers more rapidly which means the bird can actually make use of the new plumage more quickly. 

A smartly groomed bird is a pretty bird. And a pretty bird is more likely to attract a mate. Birds tend to go for the prettiest of the opposite sex. Their instinct tells them to pick the most colorful and most robust birds for a mate because it means that the bird is healthy and will be able to help with the nest building, the care of any offspring that results in the pairing up and it is a pretty sure sign that the babies will be healthy. 

Preening is also a bonding experience between two birds. This ritual called allopreening is something two birds do to maintain a close relationship and it is a form of communication.

It demonstrates a closeness and a trust between the two birds. This ritual helps keep the relationship strong and it is an important part of the relationship between the two birds. 

Birds don’t just use their beaks and bills to preen. They will sometimes use their feet to scratch or pull at a feather to either remove it or simply align it. They are rather methodical about the way they preen as they have a lot of territory to cover. They sometimes appear to tie their bodies up in knots to reach that one troublesome feather in order get it placed just the way they want it. 

Preening isn’t alway simply oiling up and aligning the feathers. Many other methods are used to care for their feathers. Some birds will take a dust bath as part of their preening ritual. This might sound counterproductive but it is an effective method of absorbing any excess oils as well as ejecting any parasites that still might be laying around in her feathers.

Some birds use this as their only method of bathing, but most birds when given the chance will use both methods of bathing. 

Water bathing is common in most birds. This method is effective in removing dust, dirt, parasites and any excess dander that builds up on the plumage. It also cleans up the skin underneath the feathers and hydrates both the feathers as well as the skin. Most birds seem to enjoy it as it makes them feel clean and refreshed. When they are finished bathing and are once again dry, they can get to that all-important work of lining up their feathers and zipping them to form a barrier that keeps the weather and the moisture away from their bodies. You might see a bird stretch before commencing with a preening session. This stretching puts a space between the feathers which gives the bird the room to fuss with the feather and aligning it where she wants it to be. 

Sunning is a method of getting sunlight onto areas of the body that are difficult to reach. One reason for sunning is that parasites don’t like being in the sun and will move to other parts of the bird’s body to avoid it. This makes it easier for the bird to evict the pest from a place that is easier to reach.

Regular preening is a critical part of maintaining their feathers as well as their health. It is crucial for survival in the wild. The next time your bird begins to preen, take a minute and observe what she is doing, because it is one of the very things that is an important part of being a bird.