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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.