Preening (bird)

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When preening, a bird draws individual feathers through its beak, realigning and re-interlocking the barbules.

Preening is a maintenance behaviour found in birds that involves the use of the bill to position their feathers, interlock barbs that have become separated, clean and keep ectoparasites under check. Preening can secondarily be a social activity that involves two or more birds.

Etymology

The use of the word "preen" to mean the tidying of a bird's feathers dates from Late Middle English. It appears to be a variant of the word prune; one now obsolete definition of prune meant "annoint", based on the Latin ungere, which had the same meaning. This usage was combined with the Scottish and northern English dialect preen meaning "pierce" or "pin", due to the "pricking" action of the bird's beak during preening.[1]

Importance of preening

Because feathers are critical to a bird's survival — contributing as they do to insulation, waterproofing and aerodynamic flight — birds spend a great deal of time maintaining them.[2] Studies on multiple species have shown that birds spend an average of more than 9% of each day on maintenance behaviours, with more than 92% of that time spent preening.[3] However, this number can be significantly higher. One study found that some gull species spend 15% of their daylight hours preening during the breeding season, for example,[4] and another showed common loons spend upwards of 25% of their day preening.[3] In most of the studied species where the bird's sex could be determined in the field, males spent more time preening than females, though this was reversed in ducks.[3]

Displaced feathers can cause birds considerable trouble; such feathers might become damaged, could interrupt the smooth flow of air over a flying bird, or might allow the bird's body heat to escape. Preening allows a bird to reposition such displaced feathers. There is evidence that filoplumes, specialized feathers buried under a bird's outer covering of contour feathers, help to signal when contour feathers have been displaced.[5] Preening also enables birds to remove dirt and parasites from their feathers.[6] During moult, birds remove the sheaths from around their emerging pin feathers while preening.[2] Preening is often seen in association with other maintenance behaviours including bathing, dusting, sunning, oiling or anting, and can either precede or follow these other behaviours.

Preening action

Preening may involve two kinds of bill actions: nibbling (or mandibulating) while working the feather from base to tip, or stroking with the bill either open or closed. In grebes, this is done more vigorously with an open bill and is termed "stropping". In penguins, the head is also used in a motion referred to as "wiping". Some birds will also use their feet in an action termed as scratch-preening which is usually applied to the head. Some species (including nightjars, herons, frigatebirds, owls and pratincoles)[7] have comb like serrations on the claw (a pectinate claw) of the middle toe which may aid in scratch preening. While some species use the leg over the lowered head while the wing is held low, others extend the leg between the wing and the body.[8] In general, these activities take place while the bird is either perched, on the ground, or swimming, but some of the more aerial species (including swallows, terns and albatrosses) preen on the wing.[9]

Preen oil

Two-barred crossbill extracting preen gland oil

Because fully-grown feathers are essentially dead structures, it is vital that birds have some way to protect and lubricate them. To facilitate this, many species have a preen or uropygial gland, which opens above the base of the tail feathers and secretes a substance containing fatty acids, water, and waxes. The bird gathers this substance on its bill, and applies it to its feathers.[10] The gland is generally larger (in relation to body size) in waterbirds, including terns, grebes and petrels, but studies have found no clear correlation between the size of a bird's gland and the exposure to water its lifestyle dictates.[11]

Preen oil plays a role in reducing the presence of parasitic organisms, such as feather-degrading bacteria, lice and fungi, on a bird's feathers.[10] For example, one study showed that the presence of the bacteria Enterococcus faecalis in the preen oil of hoopoes inhibited the growth of the bacteria Bacillus licheniformis, a species which breaks down keratin, the main component of feathers. Enterococcus faecalis did this by releasing bacteriocin.[12] Other studies have shown that removing or restricting access to the uropygial gland typically results in a higher bacterial parasite load on the plumage, though not necessarily of feather-degrading bacterial species.[13][14] Preen oil may also play a part in protecting at least some species from some internal parasites; a study of the incidence of avian malaria in house sparrows found that uninfected birds had larger uropygial glands and higher antimicrobial activity in those glands than infected birds did.[15]

The preen gland is absent in the ratites (emu, ostrich, cassowary) as well as some neognath birds, including bustards, a few parrots and pigeons. While preen oil is seen in a lot of bird species, some birds, the heron for example, have special feathers called powder down which breakdown into a fine dust that the birds apply to their contour feathers while preening.[16]

Secondary functions

Preening may serve a secondary function in courtship displays with a role in signalling the health of birds. In Bohemian waxwings, preen oil increased the UV reflectance of feathers.[17] During the breeding season, great white pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus) produce a uropygial gland secretion that is orange-red in colour which, on application to the feathers, imparts a pink flush to it. The yellow feathers of a great hornbill (Buceros bicornis) are also cosmetically coloured during preening.[18]

Preening may also be performed as a displacement activity by birds that have been alarmed and are returning to normalcy.[19]

Allopreening

Two black and white birds lie on their bellies on a sandy beach; one nuzzles the other's head with the tip of its long, yellow bill.
Allopreening may help to strengthen pair bonds...

Although preening is primarily an individual behaviour, some species indulge in allopreening, with one individual preening another.[8] It is not particularly common among birds,[20] though species from at least 43 families are known to engage in the mutual activity.[21] Most allopreening activity concentrates on the head and neck, with a lesser amount directed towards the breast and mantle and an even smaller percentage applied to the flanks. A few species are also known to allopreen other areas—including rump, tail, belly and underwing.[22]

A number of hypotheses have been advanced to explain the behavior: that it assists in effective grooming, that it assists in recognition of individuals (mates or potential sexual partners), and that it assists in social communication, reducing or redirecting potential aggressive tendencies.[21] These functions are not mutually exclusive.[23] Evidence suggests that different species may participate for different reasons, and that those reasons may change depending on the season and the individuals involved.[21] In most cases, allopreening involves members of the same species, although some cases of interspecific allopreening are known; the vast majority of these involve icterids, though at least one instance of mutual grooming between a black vulture and a crested caracara has been documented.[24] Birds seeking allopreening adopt specific, ritualised postures to signal so; they may fluff their feathers out, for example, or put their heads down.[20]

Five small black-and-white birds perch on a branch; three of them are preening themselves, and a fourth is preening the fifth one's head.
...and can reduce or redirect aggression within a flock.

There is some evidence that allopreening may help to keep in good condition those feathers that a bird cannot easily reach by itself; allopreening activities tend to focus on the head and neck, for example.[25][26] It may also help to remove ectoparasites from those hard-to-reach areas. Allopreening is most common among species that are regularly in close physical contact due to flocking or social behaviours,[20] and such contact allows for easier transfer of ectoparasites between individuals.[27] In one study, Macaroni penguins that frequently allopreened had significantly fewer ticks on their heads and necks than those that did not.[28] Green wood hoopoes, a flocking species with a complex hierarchy, show similar frequencies of initiating and reciprocating allopreening of the head and neck regardless of social status, time of year or group size, which suggests that such activity is primarily related to feather hygiene.[23]

Most allopreening is done between the two members of a mated pair,[8] and the activity appears to play an important role in strengthening and maintaining pair bonds. It is more common in species where both parents help to raise the offspring, and correlates with an increased likelihood that partners will remain together for successive breeding seasons.[27] Allopreening often features as part of the "greeting ceremony" between the members of a pair in species such as albatrosses and penguins, where partners may be separated for a relatively long period of time, and is far more common among species that are sexually monomorphic (that is, species where the sexes look outwardly similar). It appears to inhibit or sublimate aggression, as it is typically the dominant bird that initiates the behaviour.[22]

Allopreening also appears to reduce the incidence of conflict between members of some colonially living or colonially nesting species. For example, neighboring black guillemots that engaged in allopreening were much less likely to fight. Since fights often lead to eggs or chicks being knocked off breeding cliffs, fewer fights led to greater breeding success for allopreening neighbors.[29] Among social flocks of green wood hoopoes, rates of body allopreening (that is, allopreening of another bird's body rather than head and neck) increased with group size. Evidence suggests this type of allopreening reduces social tension, and thus plays an important role in group cohesion. More dominant birds received far more body allopreening services than did lower-ranked birds, and lower-ranked birds initiated far more body allopreening bouts than did their higher-ranked flock mates. Body allopreening was only reciprocal when done with between members of a mated pair; otherwise, the dominant bird reciprocated in fewer than 10% of the instances.[23] Among caged birds, confining a bird with an incompatible or very dominant cage mate can lead to excessive allopreening, which can result in feather plucking or injury.[30]

References

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  5. ^ Necker, Reinhold (May 1985). "Observations on the function of a slowly-adapting mechanoreceptor associated with filoplumes in the feathered skin of pigeons". Journal of Comparative Physiology A. 156 (3): 391–394. doi:10.1007/BF00610731. 
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  19. ^ Iersel, J. J. A. Van; Bol, A. C. Angela (1958-01-01). "Preening of Two Tern Species. a Study On Displacement Activities". Behaviour. 13 (1): 1–87. doi:10.1163/156853958x00037. ISSN 1568-539X. 
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  23. ^ a b c Radford, Andrew N.; Du Plessis, Morné A. (December 2006). "Dual Function of Allopreening in the Cooperatively Breeding Green Woodhoopoe, Phoeniculus purpureus". Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. 61 (2): 221–230. doi:10.1007/s00265-006-0253-6. JSTOR 25511576. 
  24. ^ Ng, David; Jasperson, Bruce D. (May 1984). "Interspecific Allopreening between Crested Caracara and Black Vulture" (PDF). The Condor. 86 (2): 214–215. JSTOR 1367047. 
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  29. ^ Lewis, Sue; Roberts, Gilbert; Harris, Mike P.; Prigmore, Carina; Wanless, Sarah (August 2007). "Fitness increases with partner and neighbour allopreening". Biological Letters. 3 (4): 386–389. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2007.0258. PMC 2390679Freely accessible. 
  30. ^ Coles, Brian H., ed. (2007). Essentials of Avian Medicine and Surgery (3rd ed.). Oxford, UK: Blackwood Publishing Ltd. p. 46. ISBN 978-1-4051-5755-1. 

External links

  • Yellow-billed babblers preening and allopreening
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