Feathers are critical for a bird’s survival: they are used in flight and to regulate their body temperature. Thus birds spend a lot of time preening, bathing and anting to maintain their feathers in optimal condition. These activities help to remove parasites and keep the feathers waterproof.
Bathing is just as important and birds frequently carry out ritual movements to wet their feathers and then dry them.Birds can have up to 25,000 feathers and so they can spend several hours preening a day. Most birds have an oil gland at the base of their tail and when preening they moisten their beak with an oily secretion from this gland.
Aquatic birds such as the black-necked grebes, several of which spend the winter at the Għadira and Simar nature reserves, feed on fish which they catch by diving and swimming underwater. They have a thick layer of waterproof feathers to keep dry and warm and spend a lot of time preening them.
With luck one can catch them having a bath just in front of one of the observation hides at the reserves.
When bathing, these birds lower their body in the water and use their wings to throw water on their backs. They do this several times. When they finish, they rise out of the water, vigorously shaking their body and flapping their wings to remove the water. They can do this over and over again until all or most of the water is removed.
Land birds often follow a ‘water bath’ with a dust bath. This removes excess oil as well as dry skin and stops the feathers from becoming matted.
In summer, when water is scarce, sparrows can often be seen cleaning their feathers this way. They usually dust themselves communally with one or two birds performing the dusting while the others stay on the lookout for danger.
This article was published in The Times on 16.01.13