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Why do birds preen, groom & bathe?

Updated on February 28, 2015

Read first

For the meanings of bird parts which you do not understand in this Hub, see my bird glossary.

If what you want is not in there, please let me know so that I can add it into the glossary.

Grooming ducks

Two White-face Whistling Ducks grooming each other at the Oregon Zoo. (See capsule 'Preening and grooming.')
Two White-face Whistling Ducks grooming each other at the Oregon Zoo. (See capsule 'Preening and grooming.') | Source

Bird preening

An American Avocet preening while standing in shallow water near Radio Road, Redwood Shores, (See capsule 'Grooming & Preening')
An American Avocet preening while standing in shallow water near Radio Road, Redwood Shores, (See capsule 'Grooming & Preening') | Source

Preening & grooming

Preening is a bird's way of grooming its feathers by itself. Actually this is not completely true. One bird can preen another bird and then allow the first bird to return the favor. This process removes excess dust and parasites (Parasites can be removed other ways that are mentioned below.), but mainly it keeps their feathers aligned and adjacent to other feathers plus their bodies. Most species do it several times per day to stay healthy.

Now we get to the nitty gritty. Okay, I am just going to explain a simple name. There is a special gland which is found near the base of the tail and is also essential to preening. It is another name for the preen gland - the uropygial (oil) gland. It produces a kind of oily substance that keeps the wings waterproof and <<flexible>>. Some birds, such as pigeons, some predator birds and others, do not have this special gland. Instead they have special feathers which break down into feather 'down'. These feathers provide the same purpose as preen oil. These birds are less likely to take water baths. (I always wondered why I never saw a pigeon/dove get in the bird bath.)

This gland is 'nipplelike' and is actually located on the rump. The bird uses this gland by rubbing and squeezing the beak sideways across the gland. A bird is able to use its beak to obtain the special oil from the gland and then spread the oil onto the feathers while doing the preening. With this special oil, the small feather barbules are lubricated plus their life becomes lengthened when they are assisted from becoming too brittle.

Bird doing wing stretch

Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) - North Carolina (See capsule 'Stretching')
Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) - North Carolina (See capsule 'Stretching') | Source


Stretching is nothing more than producing space between the feathers after preening. Stretching, or fluffing, also helps align feathers after preening/grooming.

If you are watching a set of eggs in a nest closely, then you may catch the nestlings stretch when they first come out of their eggs. Another time might also be when the young wake up - maybe adults do the same, I am not sure.

Cough, cough. Who is making that dust?

Dust Bath

Knowing about the dust bath:

Many birds visit a bare, open area of sand, or dry - sometimes hardened - soil depending on the bird and location. They will scratch with their feet and beaks if the soil is hard until it is all soft enough to move around with ease. They simply make a small basin that is just their size. After the bird fluffs its feathers and raises the dust, which you are sometimes able to see, the bird may roll around.

The dust coats the whole bird, from the top of the feathers down to the skin. Next it shakes off the loose dust and spends time preening and grooming the plumage.

Some reasons for dust baths:

Not all birds do it but for the ones that do there is a major reason. Feather preservation. Plus the dust soaks up extra oil and possibly aids in removing leftover pests. I had mentioned in the summary above about seeing a bird go back and forth from dust bath to water bath. Perhaps the bird was trying to get rid of a stubborn mite; or maybe it was trying to cool down on a very hot summer day. Another reason for dust baths is skin irritation, they soothe the skin.

How to make one:

  • Simply dig out a hole about 5" - 6" deep by a few feet corner to corner. Make sure that it is in an area which receives plenty of sun and is a good distance from bushes or anywhere predators can hide and attack.
  • Break up the soil at the bottom of the hole and fill it with sand.
  • Tidy it up frequently and refill it/level it off with more sand.
  • Birds will use it. Cats will use it. Plus, if you have children in your yard, then tell them to stay away or they will also play in the sand. It does need a little cleaning.

Line it with stones or some other type of edging to keep away weeds.


Have you ever thought a bird was dead when it suddenly flew away?

See results

Dove sunning & preening.

 Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. (See capsule 'Sunning.')
Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. (See capsule 'Sunning.') | Source


Sunning helps birds guide body parasites and feather mites to alternate areas of the body where they can be eaten away. One of the insects that help are ants. While the bird lies there, the ants crawl upon its body and eat - or chase away - what the bird wants to be rid of.

Sometimes they also do it to dry off after using the bird bath.

Blue Jay Anting

The term "anting" means...

Anting covers a wide range of topics but the main one comes first.

Various birds engage in this activity. It basically involves using ants as a process for what is believed to get rid of mites and perhaps other pests on their plumages and bodies. Some birds use their beaks to apply the ants, while other birds simply spread their wings and lie down on an anthill. There are others still which have been observed picking up the ants in their beak and going to dip the ant in a puddle, pool or bird bath before the insect.

Then there are other birds which use different insects such as beetles, millipedes, wasps, mealworms, caterpillars, the list keeps going.

Still there are the other ways of "anting":

  • mustard, citric juices, and I think vinegar
  • food parts as in citrus peels (after they squeeze the lemon they use the skin LOL), berries, onions
  • moth balls (which I heard were poisonous to the birds), soap suds, hair tonic
  • then there is smoke - it can be from burning cigarette butts or smoking chimneys

I always wondered how a bird gets rid of the ants after the ants get rid of the mites:

I learned that there is Active Anting: The bird picks up one or more of the ants with its beak. After the process of "anting", or cleaning out the pests, it either releases or it eats the ants.

There is also Passive Anting: They either spread their wings over an ant hill or a source of smoke.

Why do they do this weird process?

No one is sure why but here are a few guesses:

  • The ants secrete protective chemicals, also produced by other insects, which may neutralize or chase away the pests on the birds.
  • The smoke and other forms of "anting" may also produce the same.
  • This may help to condition and maintain the feathers, identical to the preen oil.
  • These are just a few of the reasons, I believe that there are less known.

I remember reading a small article on anting being an "addiction" in birds. I recall part of it which went as below:

While walking her young past an anthill, the younglings were drawn towards the anthill. The mother bird seemed to be 'yelling' at them and the younglings changed direction away from the hill.

The person observing this occurance presumed it to mean that the parent did not want her fledglings doing this for some reason. I believe that it was also mentioned to have happened other times.

Seagull wrapped in fishing line

Sterna maxima and fishing line. (See capsule 'Preening problems.')
Sterna maxima and fishing line. (See capsule 'Preening problems.') | Source

Preening problems

Yes, there are even problems with this - and I do mean other than predators. Even though it is essential for their health, it can still be unhealthy in ways.

Although it is vital for the bird's health, with the multiple times that preening is done daily for cleaning, mating and such, it can be overdone. After they acquire a needless amount of oil they preen too much to get rid of it, this leads to the bird's ingesting the oil and become sick or even poisoned. There is also being not done enough. Whenever a bird gets sick the preening becomes less and sometimes can be none. This can be seen by the condition of their feathers.

Another problem is fishing line. If just the right length of line is in the bird's feathers, it can become tangled around the bird's beak/bill and keep it from eating if the bird can not get the line off of the mandibles.

So even though preening is a necessary habit of birds, and other animals, it can also be fatal.

I have also read about balloons flying away in the air and then deflating to land in the water, or even on the land, and birds - or animals - may swallow and choke on them.

I have just read in another Hub that the rings from plastic bottles become stuck in birds necks and keep food from passing down their esophagus to their stomachs.

Wild Peacock Preening

Clean environment - for nature and ourselves

Water or Land
Fishing, retrieve accessories
Bottles, recycle, do not discard
Oil - discard properly
Balloons, do not let them fly away, birds/animals choke & die
Save our birds and animals.

Do not touch the dead birds

In July of 2010, it was discovered that birds were dying because of a bird flu which was caused by AIV (avian influenza viruses) infected waters due to the aquatic birds preening. It was found that a progressive virus was "sticking" on feathers because AIV-contaminated waters interacted with the preen oil gland secretion.

The investigators had even come across a case of human infection passed from wild birds due to de-feathering of dead wild swans after a massive die-off of the birds.

I have read that the virus that causes the bird infection can change, mutate, to infect humans. The first AIV, bird flu, to infect humans occurred in Hong Kong in 1997. A new one - H7N9 - was reported in China in 3/13. Human cases have been reported in Asia, Africa, Europe, just to name a few places. There have been hundreds of humans infected by this.

Most are suspected to be connected to poultry or infected environments since these new viruses have also been found in poultry in China. Some have been mild cases, most have been respiratory and a few have had death.

Malaysia was the first case beyond China on 2/10/14 in a traveler with the new virus. It was not found in birds or humans in United States at that time.

Even cats are able to obtain this by eating a bird which has the disease or by having it passed to them by another cat.

For people, the virus particles may be transferred through clothing or even shoes. Any unprotected clothing should be disinfected. Those with normal flu should avoid contact with fowl. If normal flu combines with avian flu - watch out.

Author: Kevin - ©2013

© 2013 The Examiner-1


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    • peachpurple profile image


      3 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      birds are alike to cats, they have their unique ways of taking bath

    • The Examiner-1 profile imageAUTHOR

      The Examiner-1 

      3 years ago

      If they are so alike, I wish that cats would stop chasing and killing birds. I thought that cats did not like baths period but I do not have a cat so I do not know.



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