For the Birds column: Preening away

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Red-tailed hawk preens at Weed Beach in Darien, Conn., January 2015.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Red-tailed hawk preens at Weed Beach in Darien, Conn., January 2015.

I thought my cat was bad. The incessant licking to keep himself clean. He’s got to be the cleanest cat ever.

Then I watched a northern mockingbird preening itself. It went on for as long as I could watch and who knows how much longer after I walked away.

Feather maintenance is an important part of life for birds and it takes up a great amount of their time. Feathers play a role in a bird’s ability to fly, attract a mate, hide from predators and protect itself from the weather. Birds are the only living creatures with feathers so it’s no wonder they take such good care of them.

I’ve watched birds preening themselves many times, but I was surprised when I learned what went into preening.

When a cat cleans itself, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on. It licks its fur to keep it clean and healthy. That’s about all there is to it.

But what does a bird do when it preens itself? Several things, really. A bird preens itself to clean and repair its feathers, weatherproof its feathers and to pick out parasites. It still sounds simple enough, but it’s more interesting when you dig a little deeper.

Let’s start with waterproofing. Many birds have a preen gland at the base of the tail from which the bird collects a waterproof substance with its bill and spreads it out among its feathers. Waterfowl, which survive on near-frozen water throughout the winter, spend a lot of time waterproofing their feathers — hence the phrase, “water off a duck’s back.”

The waterproofing keeps the ducks clean and dry. I remember from my Boy Scout days learning that there’s no such thing as being wet and warm when it comes to camping.

Some birds, herons among them, have a special type of feather called powder-down. This feather breaks down into a shiny, waterproof substance that a bird spreads onto its outer feathers. I watched at length a great egret preening itself at Central Park in New York City several years ago. Like the aforementioned mockingbird, the preening went on for longer than I could watch. The egret was most likely utilizing the substance produced from the powder-down.

Another important function of preening, of course, is keeping feathers strong and maintained. Feathers are made up of several parts — shaft, vane, barbs, barbules, barbicels — and need constant attention. The barbicels (hooks) often come detached from the barbules, which impact the strength of the feathers and, therefore, the bird’s ability to fly.

Somehow, birds are able to reconnect these microscopic barbicels using their bills. And to think, I can barely thread a needle with the advantage of opposable thumbs.

Like most things in life, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to a bird preening. In this case, the interest goes all the way down to the microscopic level.

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