Create a garden spa Feathers are a bird’s best asset. Here’s how we can help our avian friends keep their plumage in tip-top condition
Feathers are a bird’s best asset. Adrian Thomas explains how we can help our avian friends keep their plumage in tip-top condition
One of the most curious wildlife behaviours you can see in the garden is woodpigeons and collared doves rain-bathing. After a period of dry weather, they respond to a passing shower by leaning steeply to one side and stretching one wing straight up to face the oncoming rain. There they sit, looking blissful, if odd, as the raindrops pummel the underside of their wing. After a while, they shift position to give their other armpit a refreshing blast! It’s one of the more extreme ways in which garden birds keep their plumage in good condition. Every day, each bird must go through a detailed feather maintenance regime. Like diligent soldiers they inspect, clean and polish their uniform, for their feathers are their waterproofs, their thermals and, of course, their miraculous flying suit. Feathers are the stand-out feature that distinguish birds from all other creatures. They’re made of the same protein as our hair – keratin – and they emerge from skin follicles in much the same way. However, each feather’s structure uses some pretty spectacular technology.
The fine barbs and barbules – the filaments that line each side of the feather’s shaft – lock to each other with thousands of tiny hooks, creating a perfect smooth, interlocking surface. Feathers are not only incredibly light, typically making up only about 5% of a bird’s bodyweight, they’re also so strong that they have allowed birds to take to the air – an evolutionary masterstroke. And all this is right there for us to see in our gardens, whether at our bird feeders, hopping around on the lawn or zooming across the clouds above.
Preening and bathing
While an immaculate feather is an asset, one that’s untidy is a liability. Wind can ruffle the vanes, they may be knocked out of place in a tussle with a rival, or spiders’ webs and dirt can get caught in them. Untidy alignment can affect a bird’s ability to fly or stay warm. So, a bird breaks from feeding and other activities several times a day to put its superhero costume back into order. As a child, I can remember taking a single feather and trying to smooth out any imperfections with my fingers, and it wasn’t easy. Yet a bird has to check and adjust all its feathers, using just its beak. To assist them, most birds have an oil gland, a bit of lubrication to smooth out the imperfections. It can also help to add a bit of clean water to the feathers, which is exactly what the rain-bathing pigeons are doing. Many birds also flick dew onto the feathers, or take to your birdbath. Much of the time, the idea is to just lightly dampen the plumage. But sometimes the bird also needs to have a full body scrub down to the skin, and this requires a good thrash about, spraying water everywhere. As well as having these very practical functions, a bird’s plumage also serves to identify who’s wearing it, their age and gender. Some feathers are an intricate mix of brown speckles and streaks to act as camouflage; in others, brighter hues and dramatic patterns are a form of powerdressing to help breeding males attract a mate and show off their status to rivals.
Untidy alignment can affect a bird’s ability to fly or stay warm
Our garden birds reveal almost every feather colour. Those that are red, yellow and green are usually the result of pigments, while blues are mostly due to the microscopic structure of the feather interfering with the light and causing glorious iridescence. Birds can also raise or lower their feathers using small muscles, allowing them to better insulate themselves in cold weather, but also to change their body shape for dramatic effect. So, when he sings, the male starling flares the feathers on his head and especially his throat, f lashing his glossy mane, while the male town pigeon puffs up the feathers around his neck, which is like a shining metallic headdress. Whether it be blue- and-yellow tits, salmon-coloured jays, red-breasted robins or star-studded starlings, our garden birds add beauty and grace to the garden as magical as any flower, and all thanks to the evolutionary miracle of their feathers.
When birds need a full body scrub, it’s a splashy affair Preening involves using the beak to smooth out any imperfections