Keeping 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.

Try This! 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, fluffing out.
  • 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!