Flight Gear in Tip-Top Shape
Photo courtesy of Harlan and Altus Aschen.
They fly forward and backward at lightning speed. They hover in
one place long enough to drink a nectar meal, or zigzag through the air
catching tiny insects in their mouths. These tiny flying jewels are winged
wonders in the air. But hummingbirds are just as remarkable when they stop
to care for their most important flight gear: their feathers. Like flight
crews that get airplanes ready to fly, hummers work to keep their flight
gear (in their case, feathers) in top condition. Preening is what it takes,
and all birds do it.
Preen 'n Clean
Birds preen to remove parasites and to clean and oil their feathers. Preening
also helps put in place the barbs that "zipper" together to restore
each feather's smooth surface. Hummingbirds have fewer feathers than other
birds. But even a tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird has about 940 feathers
to keep in order, so it stops flying several times a day to preen.
How does preening help a hummingbird fly? Preening helps keep the feathers
clean and aligned properly, making hummingbirds more aerodynamic and their
wings more efficient.
Watch for Pre-flight Preening Routine
Attach a small twig (narrower than a pencil) somewhere near your hummingbird
feeder to increase your chances of seeing hummers preen. Make sure the perch
is sturdy. You want to give your hummers a safe place to perch as they preen,
where they can survey their feeding territory. A misting hose or a mister
near a hummer feeder will help too, as hummers enjoy zipping through the
spraying water. Hummers are also attracted to dripping water. Create some
drips by hanging a tin can with a couple of tiny holes punched into the
bottom several feet over a bird bath. Fill the can with water. The water
dripping from the holes will often attract hummingbirds as well as other
birds. Once they're wet, hummers HAVE to preen. Watch to see the steps a
hummer follows as it preens. Here's the pre-flight checklist:
- When preening, a hummer first ruffles its feathers,
- Then it uses its long bill to nibble along each feather.
The nibbling removes oil, dirt, and parasites.
- As it nibbles, it takes tiny droplets of fresh oil
from a gland at the base of its tail (the oil gland looks like a tiny
pimple) and works the oil into its feathers.
- Next it thoroughly cleans its flight feathers, running
each feather of its wing through its bill. This action zips closed any
places where the feather barbs have separated.
- Then it uses its tiny claws to scratch hard-to reach
places, such as the back of its head and neck. It also cleans its bill
from base to tip, using its claws and nearby branches to wipe it clean.
(Remember: nectar is sticky, so hummers need to clean up!)
- When done, the hummer ruffles its feathers once more
so they all fall neatly into place.
- The hummer stretches each wing, lowers its head, fans
its tail, and takes off!