In our Migration Sensation program, we spotlight a vital bird behavior called preening. Have you ever observed a bird rustling their beak into their plumage? They’re retrieving special oils from a gland at the base of their tail and applying it to their feathers. Those oils help to waterproof and protect their feathers. When researching tidbits about grackles for our last post, I came across a strange phenomenon involving preening and ants. Grackles, along with over 250 other bird species, can occasionally be found standing on top of an anthill in a still posture with their wings outstretched. Their aim is to disturb the ants and send them into full home-defense mode. The ants frantically crawl over the bird’s body releasing chemicals like formic acid. These chemicals may supplement the bird’s own preening oils and they serve to ward off other insects as well as fungus and bacteria.
Along with coating their feathers with oils, preening birds are also “zipping” up their feathers. They’re reattaching each tiny hook and barbules on each barb that lines each feather. Take a close up look at these important, yet surprisingly simple, structures.
As feathers get ruffled throughout a bird’s busy day, they become less aerodynamic. Each feather is attached to its own muscle and serves to make the bird an intricate flying machine. Humans studied birds when designing the airplane, but the modern airplane pales in comparison to our feathery friends. The airplane has a few flaps and a rudder to create lift and drag while a bird has hundreds of teardrop shaped feathers manipulating the airflow around its body. Each feather must be kept neatly groomed and placed in its prime position for flight.