Let Your Bird Dry Itself After a Bath

Rosebreasted Cockatoo/Galah

When I was a child, I used to worry about what happened to birds when it rained. I’d lie in bed at night, listening to storms wondering how birds kept warm at night if they got wet? I figured they’d find a sheltered perch and ride it out but as perches are branches and branches move in wind and wind happens in storms, I’d still wonder how they did it?

When I was older, I started attending wildlife rescue training. I was taught that most species of bird were waterproof because of oils or powder in their feathers. I was taught that there was a gland (the Uropygial Preen Gland) on a bird’s back just above their tail. This gland secretes oil, which the bird spreads through their feathers as they preen. The spreading of this oil or in some species powder (formed from keratin sheathes that surround pin feathers) was apparently what made a bird waterproof. The oil/powder coated the bird’s feathers so that water beaded and rolled right off. A first year lecturer in my vet science course explained this theory in some detail as well.

I was taught that if anything happened to a bird’s preen gland the bird wouldn’t be able to maintain its waterproofing and therefore couldn’t maintain its temperature. Birds exposed to an oil spill often died because the preen gland was blocked and their feathers’ powder/oil was compromised.

Male Eclectus Parrot

I’ve never been happy with that theory of waterproofing. I’ve seen birds with no damage to their preen gland lose their waterproofing ability. Similarly I’ve seen feathers that are covered in the bird’s oil/powder still get wet. So I found myself emailing my lecturer asking questions. I wanted to know why my own pet birds got wet in the shower despite their ‘waterproofing’ and perfect preen glands? The lecturer didn’t like being contradicted very much. He told me to take my birds to the vet, because if they got wet they must be sick.

Fortunately, science has progressed beyond the old studies that my lecturer had clearly been reading. We now know that the oil secreted by a bird’s preen gland is used to help condition a bird’s feathers. Feather powder works in a similar way. Powder and oil seem to be important in allowing a bird to maintain the flexibility of its feathers, which in turn allows the bird to position its feathers in a desirable way.

Spreading feathers to get wet, Fid's under his wing in there somewhere...

This might seem to be bird trivia, but it’s actually quite important that parrot owners understand how a bird’s waterproofing works. In short, certain types of feathers are water repellent because of their structure (specifically the tightness/flexibility of their feather’s barbs). A feather’s angle determines whether or not a bird is waterproof.

We know that birds use feather angle to communicate, but they also use it to control whether or not they get wet. A well-conditioned feather can be angled to allow water to run off, or alternatively to allow water to be absorbed. For a bird owner, it is important to realise that (assuming your bird is healthy and therefore in good condition), your bird is choosing whether or not to get wet when you bathe it.

Enjoying a shower? Or does she just want to get wet?

When giving bathing advice to parrot owners I have been guilty of saying: “You’ll know when your bird is enjoying a bath because it fluffs up and flaps its wings.” That’s not entirely a correct piece of advice. You know a bird wants to get wet if it fluffs up and flaps its wings; but that doesn’t necessarily tell you whether or not the bird is enjoying the experience or not.

Morgy kept her feathers in tight, this particular shower. She played under a full stream of water for 10 minutes. Came out, shook herself once and was dry.

There have been times that my own birds have kept their feathers in tight under a full running shower, but they have chosen to go in and play in the water rather than be somewhere away from the water. They come out perfectly dry, but because they chose to play like that, I’m inclined to think there was some enjoyment in the game.

Taken 10 seconds after the previous photo - she's dry.

The reason this bit of information is important to parrot owners, is because of how we tend to react to our birds being wet. I’ve seen owners pull out a towel or a hair dryer because we worry that they’ll get cold. This scares me. Rubbing a bird with a towel can impact on the bird’s feather condition. We can matt their feathers, and damage barbs, lessening a bird’s chance of choosing whether or not they get wet. Worse than that though, most elements in a hairdryer are Teflon coated. That should ring alarm bells for most parrot owners as the effects of Teflon poisoning are well-publicised. Teflon isn’t just found in kitchen appliances.

If your bird is wet, it is because it chose to be and as owners we need to realise that. A bird is fully capable of drying itself and a little bit of shivering in the process is normal and even healthy. The slight shaking of feathers that shivering invokes, can help a bird shake water out of its feathers. As long as you’re not sticking a wet bird in an exposed position in a cold wind, they’ll be fine. Put them somewhere warm and let them preen themselves dry.

Fid had blood tests the week before that confirm he is 100% healthy, but even his 'water-resistant' feathers get wet. You can tell because they appear grey instead of blue.

Our birds actually need to get wet occasionally. The drying process is simply part of a bird maintaining their feather and skin health. If you mess with that you might actually be discouraging your bird from enjoying a bath because they’re afraid of how you’re going to ‘help’ them dry.

Wet Lorikeets. There's a reason why I refer to my lorikeets as 'reincarnated goldfish'.

The best help that you can give your bird, is getting their diet right so that they develop healthy feathers in the first place. This helps your bird determine for itself just how wet it gets in a bath. The way to feed a healthy diet is explained in the Birdtricks Natural Feeding Course.

Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.


Patsy Harper

I would love to here the theory on the Jenday bath behavior. It sound funny, as in ha ha, but not if something is wrong!

Patsy Harper
Linda Ensing

I have recently adopted a 40 year old Goffin cockatoo, and am very carefully finding out his likes and dislikes, as his previous owner of 39 years passed away. I have allowed him the choice of whether he wants a shower from spray bottle or not, but he never preens afterward. Sometimes he just boughs his head and I just spray him a little on his back, and then he dunks his head repeatedly in his water dish, but when he gets wet all over after lifting his wings and turning for a few minutes, he just sits there and doesn’t preen until he is completely dry later that day or next morning. Could someone tell me if that is ok? He recently started chewing his long wing and tail feathers off too…..

Linda Ensing
Rosemary Southard

Hi there: I am so glad to read what everyone is saying about this, and I can appreciate knowing about it. I may try some of these just to see. I do have a citron cockatoo, and a Blue, and Gold Macaw. I would love to read more. My cockatoo does pluck her feathers, and maybe she is not getting wet often enough. thanks.

Rosemary Southard
Rosemary Southard

Hi there: I also have a Nanday Conure Parrot. I have to go another route. My Nanday trys to drown herself every time. I mean stick her head in the water, and done come up at all. I half to reach in and get her out of the water before she drowns. when she does this she falls over like she is dead. I mean kills over on her back. I half to go another route, and she does this even if the faw. in the sink is just dripping she does the same thing. what or why is she doing this? this is every time. need help to figure this one out. thanks much.

Rosemary Southard
Dave Long

Our Eclectus A -Tsu -Tsa is going through his first molt so I shower his daily. Some times he dances on the perch in the shower and other times he tends to go to sleep to almost falling off the perch. After I put him on his stand in front of a window to dry. He sets there and sings and talks until he is dry. I always check under his wings to make sure it’s dry there. He becomes very soaked and when I put him on the perch he shakes like a dog and fluffs up for the time until he is dry. He is now one year and two months and just a great time and a wonderful addition to our family and flock. Thanks for your info and good to know I doing it correctly.

Dave Long

I wondered why they sometimes flip & fluff, and sometimes just play! At first, I thought it was a learned behavior. Then I discovered that my hand-fed chicks did both. Thanks!

Theresa Lackey

Thanks – I have had my Grey for 15 years & have redone all the pots & pans in my kitchen to stainless steel. I rarely dry my Grey although during the winter time, periodically I may blow him dry just a little. I never even thought that the hair dryer could contain teflon also! I am always trying to research what is the best for him. I am so glad I read this post – great info!!

Theresa Lackey

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