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by Diane Burroughs October 28, 2020 5 min read

Getting a new pet bird can be an exciting time in your life. 

However, it comes the learning curve, especially if this is your first time owning a bird. You’ll need to learn about a lot of things including all about bird molting and bird preening. 

Caring for bird feathers can be intimidating! But it's an important part of pet bird care.

In this blog post, I want to simplify things for you and help you understand everything you need to know about bird preening. 

Let’s fly right in! 

Bird Preening 101: Why Do Birds Preen? 

Did you know that small birds have between 1,500 to 3,000 feathers on their bodies?  

Feathers are complex.  Here is what each feather looks like:

The structure of a feather


                    Anatomy of a feather (Image via

Preening helps a bird keep all of its feathers in tip top condition

After all, a bird is reliant on its feathers to fly to safety and to get to food sources. Birds spend a lot of their time preening themselves--in fact; you’ve probably observed a bird preening, even if you don’t have one yet.  

But, why do birds preen?  

You can think of preening as a grooming activity. A bird removes parasites, dust, and dirt from each feather through preening, leaving each feather in the best condition. With 1.500 or more feathers, that’s a lot of work!  That’s why you observe birds preening so much of the time. 

The Uropygial or Preening Gland is an integral part of the preening process for most parrot species. 

A bird preening gland

This gland is located at the base of the bird’s tail and looks like a small nipple-like papilla. It secretes an oily (somewhat waxy) substance that helps keep the feathers flexible and coats them with a waterproof layer. Otherwise, feathers would get brittle and break easily.

During preening, the bird collects some of the oil on its beak and feathers and then spreads the oil to each feather, conditioning and moisturizing it. The newly cleaned feather looks vibrant and it feels flexible.

Why Is Bird Preening Important? A Quick Peek 

Here are a few reasons why bird preening is crucial for our pets:  

  • Bird preening helps to maintain your pets feather quality, and supports exercise, especially bird flight training
  • Aligns bird feathers so that all feathers work together. 
  • Most bird feathers are water-proofed with preening oils each day. 
  • Bird preening helps to remove sheaths from newly grown feathers. 
  • Clean, well aligned feathers insulate the bird from cold and heat.
  • Healthy, well-maintained feathers make it easier to attract a mate.

Bird Preening FAQs: How Do Birds Learn to Preen?

Some birds, like parrots, model preening, thereby teaching their young how to preen. Preening is one of the most important bird behaviors a bird performs, after foraging. 

You can teach your young bird how to preen by bathing and misting it and rewarding preening behavior. 

You can also preen your bird yourself, and it can be a bonding experience for the two of you. 

You can learn more about preening your bird by watching this video: 



What Happens When a Hand-Fed Bird Never Learns To Bird Preen? 

Bird Preening Is Important. Did you know that poorly preened feathers are a symptom of poor health? 

Sometimes, hand-fed birds engage in over preening or under preening. 

Over preening is when the bird takes on an almost obsessive approach to caring for its feathers.  It spends an inordinate amount of time on each feather and almost digs into its body. This may be a sign of an overly anxious bird.  I'll talk more about this in a bit.

Under preening is when the bird is disinterested in its feathers.  It's disinterested in self-care.  Either one of these conditions causes the bird to look tattered and ill. Under preening may be a sign of a depressed or ill bird. If this situation occurs, you'd want to take the bird into the vet for an exam.

In this video, Smokey is showing a normal, healthy interest in preening.  Note how he quickly moves from one feather to another, not spending too much time on any one feather. He takes a feather in his mouth, quickly nibbles away at any sheath, and then proceeds to align the length of the feather. Then, he moves on to another feather.

Since preening is an essential avian behavior, not indulging in it comes with a few consequences. 

  • Feathers look dull and feel brittle. They are easily damaged. 
  • The bird will be unable to take a flight, or the flight quality will be extremely poor. In most cases, the bird won’t be able to survive in the wild as it will be more susceptible to predators. 
  • Displaced feathers will cause heat to escape, leaving the bird unable to control its body temperature. 
  • The feather quality will go down since preening oils will not be spread throughout the feathers, and the bird will look sick. 
  • The color vibrancy will be low, and dust and dirt find their way onto your bird’s skin. 
  • Your bird might become a host to several parasites. 
  • The bird will fail to remove the sheath around the new pin feathers making it look like a porcupine. 
  • The bird may get more easily chilled.

Since a bird’s feathers are critical for its survival, it is important that they spend a lot of time maintaining them. An average bird spends up to 30% of its day preening. 

How Can I Support My Over-preening Bird? 

Missing, broken, and frayed feathers are a sign of over-preening. 

Over-preening is one of the most common destructive behaviors found in birds. 

Stress, boredom, and other psychological factors are often to blame for over preening. Unlike plucking, over-preening is harder to pick up. In most cases, owners report deteriorating feather conditions. Following are the signs of over-preening in parrots: 

  • Bald spots 
  • Patchy feathers 
  • Broken and frayed feathers 
  • Thinning feathers 

A lot of bird owners believe that over-preening may be a precursor to plucking. However, that may not be the case if you’re able to stop it in time. 

Here’s how you can support your over-preening bird: 

  • Provide distractions: Foraging toys make excellent tools to help keep your bird mentally occupied throughout the day. The bird channels all of its energy towards foraging and ‘forgets’ to over-preen. 
  • Mist your bird: Use a fine mist sprayer to spray some lukewarm water on your bird to stop it from over preening. Make sure not to soak her entirely!
  • Get another outlet: Provide your bird with a   safeoutlet for preening.  For instance, untreatedSisal ropeto preen is fun to chew and doesn't clog the digestive tract like cotton rope. 
  • Make a toy out of feathers: Collect and sterilize feathers that you come across when you’re out and about. Make a toy out of them and place it near your bird. Your bird will start preening the toy, leaving its feathers along. 

  • Summing Up: Your Ultimate Guide to Bird Preening

    Did we answer all of your questions? 

    Preening is an extremely common behavior in birds, and people often think of it as grooming. Birds spend the majority of their time preening themselves. It’s the process of removing dust, dirt, and parasites from the feathers. 

    And, of course, it is extremely important. 

    If you have any unanswered questions or concerns, feel free to leave them in the comments, and we’ll get back to you soon. 


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