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 caught among them. Untidy alignment can affect a bird’s ability to fly or stay warm. So, several times a day a bird will break from feeding and other activities 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 help 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 do this by flicking dew onto the feathers, or – of course – by taking 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 a second purpose – it identifies who’s wearing it, their age and gender. Some feathers are an intricate mix of brown speckles and streaks that act as camouflage; in others, brighter hues and dramatic patterns are a form of power-dressing to help breeding males attract a mate and show off their status to other males.
We are blessed that, in our gardens, we can see almost every feather colour. Those feathers 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, flashing his glossy mane, while the male town pigeon puffs up the feathers around his neck, which is like a shining metallic head-dress.
Whether it be red-breasted robins or blue-and-yellow tits, salmon-coloured jays 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.
Help birds look their best
There are lots of things you can do to help your garden birds keep their plumage in prime condition.
Provide a bath. Whether a birdbath or pond, the secret is all about having shallow water. Birds are looking for the equivalent of a puddle where they aren't at risk of stepping out of their depth, so design your pond to have a gently-shelving beach area or of course get (or make) a wide birdbath.
Leave some bare soil. Some birds such as sparrows and wrens like to bathe in dust as much as in water, flicking the fine particles in among their feathers. A bare, sunny patch of dry earth will serve them well
Make a safe place. The act of preening puts a bird in great danger, so they tend to do it in the quiet places. A garden with tall trees and dense conifers and evergreens will be much preferred to those with few hiding places. If cats are frequent in the garden, maybe you can put your birdbath up on a shed or porch roof, where the birds can undergo their ablutions with confidence.
Make a dustbin lid birdbath
A metal dustbin lid turned upside down offers the perfect shallow basin to allow birds to bathe, and is cheap and incredibly easy to make.
1. Choose an open area of the garden for your birdbath, not too close to cover so that cats can't lie in ambush. Lay out four bricks in a square.
2. Balance the dustbin lid upside down on the bricks so it is stable
3. Add some washed gravel, just to give birds more purchase when perching.
4. Just add water – tap water is fine. Clean out and top up on a regular basis in hot weather; throughout much of the year, the rain will do it for you.
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