In the animal kingdom, birds are the only feathered creatures, and they, as if aware of this distinction, wear their beautiful ornaments with pride and nobility. A bird invests a lot of time and a lot of energy in ensuring personal comfort.
Here I am referring to body care and feather maintenance. You may not know it, but keeping their feathers in perfect condition is crucial for birds, otherwise they would not be able to fly, and the inability to fly for a bird often means certain death.
The feathers influence every aspect of the bird's life. It protects it from bad weather, moisture, wind, strong sun. The feathers keep the thorns, the insects at a distance, help it find a partner, and contribute to the thermal insulation of the body. But most importantly, the feathers help the bird to fly, it practically gives it the sky, turning it into a perfect flying car. Well, look, a gift from Nature so special must be valued at its true value, and the birds show a lot of seriousness when they start to take care of their plumage. Most birds have more than twenty-five thousand feathers, and keeping each in good condition requires a lot of time and dedication. Every day, they spend hours cleaning their feathers, arranging them and bringing them into good condition. In fact, this is the occupation that takes birds for a long time, the second place after feeding: anyone has seen how much care the birds in the yard take care of.
For them this ritual is so important that they use every opportunity and every method to keep their plumage impeccable. Usually, they process each feather separately, an activity known as peeping, a word that expresses the work with care, little by little. With the help of the beak, they remove dust, external parasites from the feathers and align each feather in the best position in relation to the neighboring feathers and the shape of the body. Many birds do this several times a day to make sure their feathers squeak clean. They also have a special gland called the uropygian, which secretes a liquid of the same name. This oil contains diester wax and makes feathers resistant to moisture and keeps them flexible. Similar to the way we use hair conditioner. Some birds, such as owls, pigeons, parrots, hawks, do not have a uropigian gland, but have some special feathers that disintegrate into a fine powder intended for the same purpose as uropigian oil. These birds will not enter the water as often, so they do not need the powder to give them the same impermeability as other birds. Only cormorants, which do not have a uropigian gland but procure their food by immersion in water, are forced to sit with their wings outstretched in the sun long and well until each feather dries.
The plumage of birds is very tempting for many parasitic insects looking for a warm and nourishing place. Birds will try to get rid of them by cleaning their feathers with their beaks, but this mode of deworming is not always successful. Therefore, they will use every opportunity to get rid of parasites and maintain their plumage. Formic acid, which is an irritating chemical secreted by ants, is an antibacterial agent and is often used as a pesticide. Some birds take so-called "ant baths" when they find a grouse. Lying on their bellies and flapping their wings quickly, they put their live ants among their feathers. The ants, taken by surprise and determined to attack, secrete formic acid which they spray around, and it kills mites, fleas and ticks that attack the bird's skin and damage the appearance of the plumage. Another method that you have certainly seen practiced by birds is the dust bath. By flapping their wings and dusting the ground, the birds cause deep dust particles to enter the feathers, which dislocate the parasites and absorb excess uropigian oil so as not to load the feathers.
Sunbathing is another method by which birds fight external parasites. Exposing itself to the sun for a long time, the bird forces ticks, fleas or other harmful insects to move on the surface of the body in an area from which they can be easily removed with their beak. The sun's rays and heat make the uropigian liquid more liquid, and easier to spread in a thin, even layer. But let's not forget the most classic method: the water bath. Most birds start the whole licking ritual from here. After the water removes dust, dirt and parasites, the birds start to process each feather separately, polishing it from the base to the top and arranging it in the best possible aerodynamic shape.
As I told you at the beginning, feather care is essential for maintaining health, which is why the care ritual is a well-known behavior for all those who study birds. By understanding how and why birds take care of their feathers, anyone can better appreciate what it means to be a bird.