My original intent was to write only one more blog this year, but our current weather has induced me to write two (the other will follow on the last day of 2015). During the past week, our region has had more than our “fair share” of rain. Fortunately, the house is not downstream or downhill of flowing water so that flooding is not a concern (and having helped my parents when their home was flooded with about 5 feet of water, I know that is a real pain to say the least). But the yard is so water-logged that small pools of water are scattered in many places and the ground cover squishes when we walk on it. Combined with very high temperatures for this time of year, it seems that El Niño is really making itself known – and the birds like this Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) must be getting tired of being water-logged as well!
Sayings such as “like water off a duck’s back” imply that birds don’t really get bothered by water pouring from the heavens, but that is probably only partly true. During recent downpours, I saw – through the back porch screen – a Carolina wren and Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) hanging out on a downspout under the house eaves, while a brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla) clung to the brick wall under the roof overhang to get out of the rain.
Birds that regularly dive underwater do have denser feathers, which helps prevent water from penetrating through to their skin, as is the case for this Canada goose (Branta canadensis).
But birds’ feathers are not inherently waterproof – when we see water droplets beading on their backs and tails, as in the case of this brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) and blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata), it’s because the birds have made them water-resistant to some extent.
This happens in two ways. On the one hand, birds such as pigeons, herons, hawks and owls have special feathers called “powder downs” or “pulviplumes”, which are covered in a dusty powder containing keratin that disintegrates and becomes a waterproof coating. They spread the powder to other feathers while preening.
Great blue heron (Ardea herodias)
Other birds have a uropygial (preen) gland located at the base of their tails. It produces a substance containing oil and wax that the birds spread on their feathers when they groom. Often, they will rub their head against the preen gland and then spread the oil by rubbing their head against other feathers, a behavior that this female red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) seemed to be doing when she was grooming. The wax then helps make the feathers more flexible and water-resistant, which explains the water beads we see on their feathers when it rains.
Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)
Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)
Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)
It may be that some birds are less successful in spreading the powder and wax to their head feathers, or they rub all the oil or powder off their heads onto other feathers. This may account for the “bad hair day” look some of them get when it rains for hours on end. These spiky “Mohawks” often appear in Northern cardinals and Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis).
Other birds seem to especially get soggy feathers on the crowns of their heads just above their eyes. This may be why we see so many of them shaking their heads vigorously to get rid of the dampness on their pates.
Pine warbler White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)
And some birds just get an overall scruffy look when it rains hard, like this red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus).
The water-logged look does seem to give some birds an angry or disgruntled appearance; I can certainly sympathize since endless days of rain – even in warmer temperatures – is one of my least favorite types of weather. It seems that overcast days and showers are continuing in our local forecast for some time to come. So the poor birds have to put up with the wet weather a while longer. We’ll all appreciate the sunlight when it comes back in force – hopefully soon!