This Northern Pintail had just finished preening without getting all his feathers in their proper place.
Have you ever noticed that people, here and all over the world, during the course of their everyday lives, often take a few moments to check their appearance, wash up, comb their hair, fix their make-up, or spruce up their appearance in a multitude of different ways? It is a daily ritual. We all do it to keep up our appearance, and to stay as clean and healthy as we can. Birds do the same thing. We humans call it personal grooming or personal hygiene. When birds go through their everyday grooming activities, it is called preening.
Birds preen their feathers every day and sometimes several times a day. It is the activity they most engage in, second only to feeding. To learn all you ever wanted to know about bird preening, see birding.about.com/od/birdbehavior/a/Preening.htm.
While birds are working their way through every feather, cleaning and getting them into optimal condition, they often display them in unusual ways that show off many colors and the consequential beauty of those feathers that is hidden most of the time. Some birds clean their feathers by bathing to clear off dirt, insects or mites, and will do their preening as they dry.
Preening should not be confused with displaying, the strutting and showing off of feathers and colors to attract a mate, such as the fanning of tails by male Wild Turkeys and Peacocks. While preening is the avian equivalent of human personal grooming, an indirect purpose may be to make sure the bird is in prime condition when mating season comes around. Come to think of it, that may be an indirect purpose for humans as well.
In the photos accompanying this article, the Northern Shoveler put on a preening show for us, displaying feathers we never knew he had, because when he (the same bird) was just swimming by, all those colorful feathers were pretty well hidden. The Northern Pintail has just finished preening, but hasn’t gotten all of his back feathers in their proper alignment yet; and the White-tailed Kite (above, left), while preening, shows why its name was Black-shouldered Kite at one time, before the current focus on its white tail.
The male Blue-winged Teal (right) has just finished preening and has not yet covered the beautiful blue and green wing patches for which he is named. In fact, the bird still has a small preened out feather stuck to his beak, just as he appears ready to take a post-preening nap. The Black Skimmer (above, right) bathed for several minutes, oblivious to our nearby presence, preliminary to preening all those damp feathers back into their proper order.
So while both people and birds can exhibit an unintended and unexpected beauty when they are simply doing little things that they do every day, designed to keep up their appearance, remain fit and healthy, and just to make life better for themselves, sometimes they inadvertently enrich the lives of those of us who get to observe and appreciate all that unexpected and unintended beauty, as well.
I have included a picture of Jewel because several readers, whom we have not met, have asked what she looks like, since I refer to her all the time. And, I might add, she was sort of the inspiration for this article. I think it was those inadvertent blue eyes that got me. And she isn’t even preening. (3/10/2013)