Ducks and other waterbirds are able to constantly submerge themselves in the water and yet remain dry upon exit. Learn why!
For those who have ever watched a diving duck emerge from the water and appear dry within moments, it was not a trick of the light or an imagination run wild. Birds possess a variety of qualities and behaviors that allow them to survive lives around water.
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What is the uropygial or oil gland?
The uropygial gland, also known as the preen gland or oil gland, is a gland at the upper dorsal base of the tail that secretes oils used for preening and waterproofing feathers. Within these oils from the uropygial gland are bacteria that actually protect the feathers of birds from bacteria that devour keratin, causing damage and, ultimately, the destruction of feathers. Spreading the oils from the preening gland onto feathers also spreads these symbiotic bacteria onto the feathers, allowing for the beneficial bacteria to protect the feathers.
The preening oil may have some waterproofing qualities, but the real importance of the oil is to maintain the integrity of the barbs and barbules in feathers, preventing premature feather wear, and causing feathers to lose the vital bits of their waterproofing.
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Are feathers waterproof?
There are many types of feathers found on birds. Many of these feathers are not exposed to outdoor elements like sun and water. The feathers most regularly exposed to wind, water, and sun are the contour feathers, which cover most of a bird's body. A contour feather contains air spaces between the barbs and barbules, and along with the shape of the barbs and barbules, is most vital to a feather's water-repelling qualities. Why? Water cannot adhere to air spaces. However, contour feathers are not completely waterproof, especially if disheveled.
Many other feathers, like down feathers and semiplume feathers, cannot repel water. When chicks are still in the nest and covered in natal down, because they lack the water-repelling contour feathers, they are highly vulnerable to becoming wet and suffering from hypothermia. Nesting adults go to great lengths to keep chicks dry and warm after hatching.
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How do birds like ducks stay dry?
While contour feathers can repel water, these feathers alone likely do not keep a bird dry. The arrangement of contour feathers in a bird's plumage, combined with the oil from uropygial glands spread across contour feathers, can repel water effectively and keep a bird dry. This combination is crucial for birds that spend much of their time submerged in water.
Likely no single characteristic helps a bird stay dry, which is why a bird puts in much effort to keep its feathers organized, oiled, and zipped up. Preening is the most important element of maintenance for birds that spend the majority of their time in and around water. In fact, waterbirds can often have enlarged preening glands, allowing for more oil use than terrestrial bird species may need.
Can all birds repel water?
As mentioned previously, juvenile birds lack the necessary feather types required to repel water. There are some waterbirds, also, that have a tighter arrangement of barbs and barbules, creating smaller airspaces that allow for water absorption. Diving birds such as cormorants and anhingas benefit from this water absorption by carrying fewer air bubbles trapped in their feathers. Without the additional buoyancy, these diving birds can dive more efficiently and swim faster than those without. These examples provide the answer: No, not all birds repel water.
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Are birds waterproof?
No, birds are not waterproof. However, as described above, a proper combination of unique traits found within most bird species allows for a highly water-repellent body! Now, the new question is, can a bird carry a coconut? (Any Monty Python fans?)