If you watch birds for just a short time, you will see them tend to their feathers – fluffing them up, smoothing them, poking them, and rearranging them. This is called preening. After sleeping and eating, preening is a bird’s most important activity. Many birds have a preening gland near the base of their tails which produces oil that they use to groom themselves. This oil and the related primping are critical to bird health for so many reasons.
For water birds preening helps to “water-proof” them. The phrase “Like water off a duck’s back” refers to the fact that ducks never get very wet. Water literally rolls off them due to the oil they carefully spread all over their feathers while preening. This grooming insulates water birds, lets them swim and dive for food while keeping them warm and surprisingly dry.
Another reason that some birds preen is partly cosmetic. Spreading oil moisturizes and protects feathers, beaks and skin, and prevents breakage. Interestingly, the preening oil of a flamingo is rich in pink-orange colors, and spreading it all over the feathers helps makes flamingos pink! In breeding season they secrete and spread much more of this pink-orange oil. This colorful “makeup” allows them to attract more potential mates!
But preening is also done by birds that have no preening oil glands, such as owls, pigeons, hawks and parrots. Even without the oil this primping is necessary to maintain the cohesion of a bird’s feathers. A feather has hundreds of very tiny hooks, called barbicels. These barbicels act almost like Velcro and allow the small branches, or barbules, of an individual feather to interlock and stick together. Birds constantly preen to realign barbules along the shafts of their feathers. This maintains feather integrity and keeps them in the best condition for flight.
Beyond that, preening removes dirt and parasites which keeps birds clean and disease free. It also removes the sheaths of newly molted feathers. And preening in some species between family members and mates is an enjoyable social activity that shows affection.
All of this is the meaning of preening!
Learn more about the incredible nature in our area by joining a chapter of the Texas Master Naturalist organization. To find a chapter close to you, or to read about the state program, go online to www.txmn.tamu.edu. Volunteer and get involved!