THROUGH THE WOODS: Feather maintenance

Chipping sparrow. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

THE LITTLE CHIPPING SPARROW in this photo is one of many who have returned to us from the south, and this one had just taken a refreshing bath in a clean ditch full of water at the side of a quiet dirt road. The sex of this species of bird is difficult to tell, so it will arbitrarily be called male. He had waded into the water and rapidly flapped his wings throwing water all around him. It was comical to watch the flurry of wings and the puffed-up feathers. Eventually, he flew up on the low limb and went through a similar flapping and fluffing in the warm sun.

Much of the water was eliminated and he rubbed his face and wings on the limb. You could see the water on the bark and watch it disappear as it evaporated. He was still a little damp, but looked very pleased with himself and was able to fly away, clean and handsome sporting his rusty cap. In the distance, he sang his same note rapid call of chip chips…

Clean feathers are very important. Dirty, clumped feathers make it difficult if not impossible to fly with the extreme example of this being birds coated from oil spills. Birds produce their own oils, which are part of their grooming and water repellency routines, and these oils often require periodic removal. Swallows bathe by flying over water and rapidly dipping down into it and out with a shake. Some ducks and other water birds dive underwater for food and require more feather oiling to keep groomed. Cormorants get soaked while diving for food and will sit on rocks or buoys to dry by extending their wings.

Birds may also take dust baths. After bathing in water, or in the absence of water, they use dirt and dust which absorbs the oils and removes them from the feathers. In addition, the dust kills and removes various parasites like lice and tiny mites. The parasites have breathing holes that become clogged with fine dust particles, and they suffocate. I have a gravel driveway and often see wild turkeys dusting. They are so big and so exuberant that they cause quite a dust storm. In time they create a shallow bowl in the dirt. After bathing, the feathers are preened with the beak. This straightens them and helps to get the Velcro-like hooks and barbules of the feather vanes stuck back together again.

If you have a feather, try separating the vanes, and then stroke them back together again with your fingers. They are quite amazing structures. Birds periodically shed their feathers during a molt. Sometimes they lose certain areas like the tail, or it may be gradual with random feathers lost for new ones. This is to replace worn feathers, particularly those of birds who migrate long distances. Their best feathers may be attained to help attract a mate.

This time of year, we see our winter drab olive male goldfinches change into beautiful yellow feathers for spring. Most of our spring birds are back at this point, and it would be good to clean, fill, and put out hummingbird feeders. For more information about birds contact the Alan Devoe Bird Club at alandevoebirdclub.org or the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology at birds.cornell.edu/.

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