Tuesday, June 2, 2015

What's That Bird Doing?.......Being Comfortable!

While working at the World Bird Sanctuary, one of the more common questions we field from visitors is some version of “What's that bird doing?”  The bird in question could be doing a number of different things, such as flapping, stretching, coughing up a pellet, or just simply turning around.  As a naturalist, some of these behaviors are more heart-warming than others, and this type of behavior is what I'll be talking about today.

Duncan, a Wedge-tailed Eagle, rousing while on the glove of Alyssa, a summer intern (photo: ML) 
When comfortable, our birds will show it in a number of ways.  The most heart-warming of these being a display of natural comfort-showing behaviors while we're handling them--be it on-site or when we're away on programs.  These behaviors include rousing (shaking out and rearranging their feathers), feaking (cleaning their beaks off on a branch, stone or a trainer’s glove), as well as preening.  (Preening is when a bird tends to the condition of its feathers by gathering oil on its beak from a gland at the base of its tail, and distributing it on its feathers while cleaning and rearranging the feathers.  This oil reconditions and waterproofs the feathers.  Preening is a very important behavior for all birds.)

While our birds exhibit all of these behaviors on a daily basis, most of these behaviors occur when the birds are sitting on their perches, just watching the day unfold.  The times it's rewarding is when the birds are on our gloves in the middle of a program, and they're comfortable enough with us handling them to exhibit natural behaviors. 

Jet, an American Kestrel, showing that he's comfortable with the situation by sitting with his body feathers puffed out. (photo: Gay Schroer) 
The most noticeable of the behaviors I mentioned above is rousing, which is when a bird will puff out, shake out, and then slick back down their feathers.  For me personally, whenever one of our birds does this when I'm handling them, it always makes me grin, regardless of what mood I'm in.  About half the time, immediately following a rouse, the birds will waggle their tail feathers, as an extended sign of comfort or contentment.  This behavior lets me know I’m doing everything correctly with the bird.

This wild juvenile Red-tailed Hawk cleaned the feathers and blood off his beak on the large branch after finishing his Starling meal—a good example of feaking. (photo: GS) 
I generally see feaking happen at one of two times:  either we've just finished flying a bird, or right after we put them back on their perch.  Feaking is when a bird closes its eyes and rubs its beak on something to clean it, be it the glove we're handling them on or the perch we've just put them back on.  This behavior happening immediately after flying is understandable, since they could have bits of their meat reward stuck on their beak.  Why they do it so often after they get put back on their perch could be a sign that they're back in even more comfortable surroundings. 

One of the Turkey Vultures on the display line preening (ML)
Another time I've seen birds feak is right after they're done preening (cleaning or adjusting their feathers). While not quite as likely to get a grin out of me, it's still pretty cool to be handling a bird, say while talking to a group of people, and have the bird feel relaxed enough with the surroundings to make sure their feathers and beak are in order and looking nice and clean.

As I said earlier, our birds have the opportunities to display these behaviors at any point during the day, as they almost always do.  The times when it means more is when they decide they feel comfortable enough with whoever happens to be handling them that they decide to display these signs of comfort.
Most of us at the World Bird Sanctuary consider this to be the ultimate birdy complement.

Keep an eye out next time you're at the World Bird Sanctuary, and see if you can spot any of these behaviors for yourselves!

Submitted by Matt Levin, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist

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