Feathers and Preening

You have probably never thought much about feathers unless you raise chickens and wind up plucking them yourself. Or your duvet is full of down and feathers and you find them all over the place if there is a small hole. But, maybe, like many of us, you wish you had wings and could fly – like Icarus – but not with the same consequences. I wish I had feathers and wings because then I would soar into the sky as high as I could go!

Before I begin, this posting is not the definitive answer to everything about feathers or preening. But I hope to give you a glimpse into the importance of both to Red-tail hawks. Sort of a nutshell version. If you are really interested in feathers and believe me, there is a lot to learn, I have included the name of a good book later in this blog.

Red-tail hawk chicks begin to jump and flap in the nest, according to my observations, approximately 2-3 weeks after they hatch. They are building the muscles in their wings when they flap and flap. Flight feathers not only help birds fly and soar but they are contoured and offer protection from the weather. In the first photo below, there is a snow and ice storm in Ithaca on May 8. Big Red’s feathers are keeping her dry and also protecting the chicks. Look carefully at the one under her beautiful red tail feathers.

Feathers keep birds warm and dry – in ice, rain, and snow. The chicks have not yet developed feathers to do this so Big Red covers them.

Several times this spring, the rain has just been torrential in Ithaca. Again, the feathers kept Big Red, no matter how drenched she looked, dry and in turn, she spreads her wings to keep the chicks dry and warm.

For us newbies, we were worried about Big Red in all the rainy weather. Here she is covering the chicks. They get so warm that they often stick their heads out just to get cool. And just a note. Both Big Red and Arthur have brood patches where their feathers have worn down from incubating the eggs and then protecting the chicks.

When it is really hot and humid as it is in both Ithaca and Syracuse the last few days, rain can be very welcome to hot hawks. Below is an image from the Syracuse University Hawk cam showing two of their newly fledged red-tails dancing in the rain to cool off. It reminds me of being in India in the late 1980s and 1990s. You would beg for the rains to come to cool off and would run out into the rain ever so thankful!

So remember. Flight feathers are not just for flying but they are also for protection from the weather. The water resistance from the feathers comes from hydrostatic pressure. Hydrostatic pressure is the tension between the structure of the feather versus the pressure of the water. Water droplets bead on the feathers.

Arthur leaving to get prey for the chicks with Big Red giving him directions. Notice his legs tucked up and the slight curve of his wings at the end and, of course, that beautiful red tail.

Wing feathers are the longest and the most useful for flying. Below is a closeup of one of the chicks with their wing feathers starting to grow. Also notice the tail feathers that are beginning on the chick and the recognizable “red tail” of the Red Tail Hawk on Big Red. The chicks will not get their beautiful red tails until they are in their second year. Tail feathers are like the rudder on a boat. They help the birds manoeuvre. About a month after they have fledged, the chicks should be able to soar into the sky.

Approximately 18% of the weight of a Red-tail Hawk comes from feathers. By the time the chicks are 29-31 days old, their dorsal wings should be 90% feathered. Their legs will begin to feather and they will get the characteristic “pantaloons”. The ear openings should be covered and the upper tail coverts should be well developed. By the time they are 35 days old (about a week from a possible fledging or first flight off the nest), the head will be at least 50% feathered, the dorsal body will be 95% feathered, and the breast should be 90% feathered. Their tail feathers should be five to six bands long, preferably. The more bands the more successful the first flight will be.

This chick is J3, the youngest. He is 31 days old. Note the distinctive “peach” on the breast, the lovely dark feathers marking the “apron” below the crop. The downy head is beginning to gets its feathers and the feathers covering the legs are there.

At the time these chicks fledge, their wing and tail feathers will be longer than their parents. With their first molt, they will return to normal. Molting is the falling out and gradual replacement of the feathers.

There is a really good book on feathers. It is Feathers: the evolution of a modern miracle by Thor Hansen. There is so much to learn including every part and its function! Apparently humans have the DNA to grow feathers but we don’t have the “switch” to turn it on and off. Feathers are much more efficient than their hair. Hawks also use their feathers like a sharpening tool to keep their beaks in perfect condition.

The simple definition of preening is that it is cleaning and maintaining the feathers. Preening reinforces and conditions the surface of the feathers with gland oils. These gland oils contain vitamin D. When the feathers are exposed to sunlight after preening, the oil works as a protective conditioner. The oil in the glands change composition during the year just like you will, if you live in a cold climate in the winter, change the weight of your oil in your car. Red-tail hawks spend approximately 77% of their time preening.

This is an example of a warble. This is when the head of the bird is folded all the way back and down and they are preening their wings
The chicks learn quickly how to balance themselves on branches or metal railings and preen at the same time!

One of the things that I found most interesting about the feathers is that because they are hollow, some researchers understand that birds can feel the changes in barometric pressure and will know what weather conditions are approaching. They are more likely to know the precise weather approaching than the local weather station. They have to. They live outside in the trees, roost on the ledges of buildings, and depend on millions of years of evolution to give them clues to nature’s mysteries so they can survive.

Author: maryannsteggles

My creative life has many facets. I am a Professor of Ceramics and Art History at the School of Art, University of Manitoba. I write for a number of ceramic journals including Studio Potter, Art and Perception, Ceramics Technical, New Ceramics, and Ceramics Monthly. My research focuses on historical and contemporary Canadian woodfiring and, in particular, the marginalization of women. This year I have presented papers on the topic of the marginalization of women within the field of ceramics at the Third European Wood Fire Conference in La Borne, France, and the Creative Women Conference at the University of Guelph. I own Wheel and Throw. Contemporary Ceramic Design where I produce limited edition ceramic bottles. In the spring of 2019, I will be one of the resident artists at Hospitalfield in Abroath, Scotland. Can't wait! I can be reached at maryannsteggles@icloud.com

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