Preening Explained

Preening is an avian behaviour that maintains plumage.

Preening is the bird’s grooming process.

All bird species, including pigeons, follow a similar process of using their beak to reposition feathers, interlock separated feather barbules, clean plumage and remove ectoparasites.

Birds are reliant on their feathers to fly to safety or to reach food so preening is an essential function.

Did you know that on average, pigeons and other birds have up to 25,000 individual feathers? With so much to maintain, it makes sense that preening is a very important part of keeping themselves in top condition!

Second perhaps only to feeding, preening is one of the most common behaviours that you will see birds performing both in the wild and in captivity.

What Is Preening?

Preening is the term given to the way that a bird grooms its feathers to keep them in good condition.

As it preens, a bird can remove dirt, dust and parasites from its feathers and make sure that they are all aligned in the best position to reach optimum body shape with an eye on aerodynamics.

Birds will preen themselves numerous times a day, even as much as every hour when resting.

Research (of various species) has shown the average time on maintenance behaviours is more than 9 per cent of every day and of this, preening takes up 92 per cent of the time.

The essential part of a bird for preening is the uropygial gland, also known as the preen gland.

This gland is found near the base of the bird’s tail and produces a waxy, oily solution that helps to make the feathers flexible and waterproof.

As it preens, a bird will spread this oil to make sure each feather is evenly coated.

Preening in Pigeons

Interestingly, pigeons (along with other birds like owls, parrots and hawks) do not have a uropygial gland.

Instead, pigeons have special down feathers.

These down feathers are hidden underneath the outer breast feathers. They are never lost during the moulting process and experience continuous growth.

The down feathers tips break down into a dust that has a similar consistency to talcum powder.

This powder down serves the same purpose as the oil for other birds.

Birds like pigeons that produce a powder down are much less likely to immerse themselves in water and bathe that way, and they do not need the same kind of waterproof protection that preen oil can provide.

Why Is Preening Essential?

Preening serves several essential purposes for all species of birds, the most notable of which include:

  • Moisturizing feathers with oil so that they are as flexible and strong as possible, as opposed to breakable and brittle which can hamper flight quality.
  • Aligning the feathers on the body to provide optimum waterproofing and insulation to protect the bird in any adverse weather conditions like soaking rain or extreme temperatures.
  • Positioning feathers into the most dynamic shape makes for easier and more efficient flying, resulting in less energy having to be used to get from A to B.
  • Removing parasites and body lice from the feathers that carry disease or damage them. This also keeps the bird healthy and also protects the wider flock or nest from a serious outbreak.
  • Removing hard sheaths from newly moulted feathers to enable faster positioning.
  • Creating an overall more healthy appearance in order to attract a mate. Healthier, stronger-looking birds are always going to receive more attention!
  • Mutual preening can be a bonding activity during courtship to help form a stronger connection.

How Do Birds Preen?

A bird will use its bill and feet to preen every feather on its body.

It will methodically nibble and/or stroke each feather from its base to its tip to make it align in the right way.

It is not an unusual sight to see a bird in a very strange position while it preens, but they are flexible enough to be able to reach every single feather!

Some of the other behaviours that birds engage in when preening include:

1. Dust Bathing

Lots of birds will take baths in puddles of dust as part of their regular preening.

The dust helps to dislodge parasites and also absorbs excess oil from the gland and down to ensure that feathers don’t get overly coated. Birds that don’t bathe in water are more likely to dust bathe more frequently.

2. Sunning

Sunbathing helps a bird control parasites and feather mites by moving the pests around to different areas of the body that they can reach to nibble at.

It also makes the oil more liquid and easier to spread to each feather in an even layer.

3. Stretching

Stretching helps to create space between each feather, making it easier for birds to be precise in their preening movements. Stretching also makes it easier to realign the feathers correctly in each section afterwards.

4. Anting

In some situations, a bird will lay on top of an anthill or find a collection of ants to rub over their bodies while they are preening. This helps to distribute formic acid from the ant bodies on their feathers, which can arm them against the presence of parasites.

Preening Issues

Poor preening habits can be a sign of ill health in your birds.

Poor preening is either under or overdoing it.

Under preening is when the bird shows little interest in looking after its feathers. The bird could look tattered and ill and it might be a sign it is ill or depressed.

Over preening is when the bird spends a lot of time looking after its feathers, even to the point of obsessive and aggressive cleaning.  This may indicate the bird is overly anxious or stressed.

If either of these behaviours persists, it is best to consult a vet because feathers are too important to a bird’s health to be neglected or abused.

Are There Any Problems With Preening?

Although preening is an essential part of maintaining a bird’s health, there are also some circumstances that can make it a dangerous thing to do.

Birds that have become coated with oil (spilt at sea or on the coastline) will preen in a desperate attempt to restore their feathers, but this will of course only result in them ingesting too much toxic oil and poisoning themselves.

Fishing line can also be dangerous for preening birds. If any length of monofilament is caught in a bird’s plumage, it can become stuck around the bird’s bill as it tries to remove it. An inability to open their bill will obviously lead to an inability to eat, and starvation will inevitably follow.

If a bird for any reason is not able to preen every part of its body, this can lead to the development of bald patches.

While this may not be fatal, it can seriously affect the quality and strength of a bird’s flying ability, not to mention more dangerous risks if a bird has bald patches and is living in a place that experiences very low temperatures.

Denise Bereford

Denise Bereford is a full-time writer and researcher with a long-standing passion for pigeons.

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