The Meaning of Preening

by Bronwyn Clear, Texas Master Naturalist

If you watch birds for even a short time, you will see them tend to their feathers, fluffing them up, and using their bills to smooth them, poke them, and rearrange them. This is called preening. After sleeping and eating, preening is a bird’s next 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 some birds’ health for so many reasons. It provides water proofing for water birds. “Like water off a duck’s back” refers to the fact that ducks never stay wet. Water literally rolls off them due to the oil they carefully spread all over their feathers while preening. This grooming insulates water birds and keeps them dry.

Another reason for some birds to 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 their feathers is the thing that makes flamingos pink! In breeding season they secrete and spread much more of their pink-orange oil. It is as if they are putting on make-up, and this makes them more attractive to 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 very tiny hooks on them, called barbicels. These barbicels act almost like Velcro and allow the small branches of an individual feather to interlock and stick together. Birds constantly preen to reattach barbules along the shafts of their feathers. This maintains feather integrity and keeps them in the best condition for flight.

Beyond that, preening removes parasites and dirt to keep 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 love and 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 Volunteer and get involved!