1 Nov 2019

A Bird Preens Its Feathers

Common Kestrel © HIH Princess Takamado
Common Kestrel © HIH Princess Takamado
By HIH Princess Takamado

'Through the Lens', Fujingaho Magazine, November, 2019

Click here to view pdf

Photos and text: Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado

English Translation: Asia Club, a WBSJ Volunteer Group (YOKOYAMA Kazuko, KASE Tomoko, Ueno Naohiro)

The Chinese character that means 'repair' is one of my favorites. It consists of two parts, the one meaning threads and the other, doing good. It is originally used for clothes, therefore it often reminds me of my mother who used to repair torn and frayed clothes for the family. It is a good memory of old ways, compared to today’s tendency that disposability is taken for granted. We use the same character in its expanded sense for repairing or correcting various matters, including preening of birds. This time I would like to show you some photos of birds preening themselves.

What characterizes birds is that they have feathers to fly and the body is wholly covered with feathers. The feathers wear out, so many birds molt once a year to get new ones, but molting only once a year is not enough for them to maintain their flight power, and secure insulation and waterproof property of feathers. So they continually take care of their feathers in various ways including preening, birds, in order to get rid of dirt and ectoparasites, shape and keep waterproofness of their feathers.

Feathers are roughly divided into two types, vanes and so-called downs; the former is generally brought to mind as a feather. Barbules extend sideways from each barb branching crossly from the central shaft. As each barbule has tiny hooks at the tip, it interlocks with the neighboring ones. When a feather is ripped, its barb is displaced, yet a bird can restore the feather to its former condition by rubbing it gently with its beaks.


Mandarin Duck © HIH Princess Takamado

What is more, birds bathe to remove dirt and parasites attached to their bodies. Some species bathe wildly and others, elegantly. They are quite lovely and interesting to watch. They dive into the rather deep water, take shower in the shallower place, bathe in the rain or in the dew drops on leaves by flapping wings and when finished, they never forget to preen their feathers near by. In order to get rid of parasites, they bathe not only in the water, but also in the dust, the sun, snow or smoke and even with ants, depending on circumstances. I’m impressed that they try every possibility in such an amazing and creative way. Lastly let me explain about their waterproof property. At the base of their tail, there are preen glands, which secrete oil. Birds carefully apply this oil to each of their feathers. This type of preening by anointing is important particularly for those that dive into the water to get preys, such as the Kingfisher and other water birds like the Mandarin Duck.


Japanese Tit © HIH Princess Takamado

Recently my favorite Chinese character has been used more often in the sense of keeping up appearances. As it has been used when one modifies his looks or appearances tentatively after having committed an error or made an improper speech, I am concerned its original good meaning might be lost.  

Though birds spend much of its time on looking after their feathers and preen themselves carefully, they never mean to cover or save face. Observing them absorbed in preening their feathers is so soothing that it makes us feel peaceful. I hope we will learn from birds’ preening lest we should forget the good meaning of this character. 


Common Kingfisher © HIH Princess Takamado