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

Garden Answers (UK) - - Contents -

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

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