Chickens spend a lot of time preening their feathers. Julie Moore explains why they do this and why their feathers are so important

C hickens are naturally clean creatures, happily spending a good proportion of every day caring for their feathers by preening. If you have ever watched your flock, you will have realised that, although a hen will preen on her own, chickens prefer preening en masse, turning it into a social activity where the entire flock comes together to preen.

Feathers are important to chickens not only helping them to regulate their body temperatures in hot and cold weather (unlike humans, chickens have no sweat glands to cool themselves), but also water-proofing their skin, providing protection to their body as a whole, as well as sensitive areas such as the brain and eyes. It’s also not uncommon to find the odd feather lining a nest! Preening to keep feathers in good condition is therefore a necessity for survival.

Chickens have five feather types, all of which perform different roles.

1. The most familiar feather is the contour feather with its stiff, cylindrical, sharp-pointed central shaft. Radiating from the shaft are long, thin parallel barbs which are held together by tiny hooklets known as barbules to form the vane of the feather. This interlocking gives a continuous, strong and smooth surface.

Sometimes the barbs pull apart, making the feather ineffective for either waterproofing or insulation. A hen will run her feathers through her beak when she preens, forcing the barbules to hook back onto the barbs so that the feather can function fully. If you pick up a feather and see that the barbs have parted, simply smooth the barbs out with your fingers. As you smooth, the barbules will hook the barbs together again to form a strong and continuous surface.

2. Beneath the outer contour feathers is a soft, downy undercoat made up of plumule feathers. Plumules have a short shaft with radiating barbs that are free and not hooked together as in contour feathers. When fluffed up, these feathers trap air and hold it still, thus increasing the insulation capacity of the feather layer during cold periods. Conversely, in hot weather, chickens can release hot air from among the feathers by erecting them, helping to reduce their body temperature.

3. The filoplume feather is very small and hair-like. Filoplumes are those sometimes tricky to remove feathers during plucking often found on the underside of birds and on their wings.

4. When a chick hatches, it has a coat of fluffy down which resembles plumules. At first moult, the fluff is replaced by juvenile feathers which resemble adult contour feathers but are softer in texture.

5. The final feather type is the bristles which are found around the eyes and beak. They aid the sensory ability of the chicken as well as protecting the sensitive eye area and in this sense can be likened to human eyelashes.

If you watch your hens preening, you’ll see that they often peck at something at the base of their tail before raising their feathers to stroke and nibble them with their beak. This is the preen or urophygial gland, a small pimple found at the base of their tail after the last vertebrae on the back. The gland produces and discharges an oily secretion which is rich in waxes and fatty acids. The hen collects the oily substance in her beak and spreads it over her feathers. Throughout preening, she will repeatedly rub her beak on her preen gland to get more oil. The oil not only cleans feathers, it keeps them moist and flexible, helps to improve insulation and water-proofing properties and even assists in the control of external parasites such as lice.

As the oils oxidise in the air, they lose their effectiveness over time. To remove the old oils from the feathers, a hen will take a dust bath. She will then spread fresh oils through her feathers as she preens.

To keep feathers in good condition, chickens must be able to take regular dust baths and preen. When dust bathing, a chicken will firstly toss dirt onto and between fluffed feathers before enclosing it by flattening the feathers. This removes the old oils from feathers whilst also maintaining down and feather structure in good condition.

In general, hens tend to be more efficient groomers than males and spend more time preening than their male counterparts.

Good feather growth and maintenance requires adequate amounts of proteins, amino acids, minerals and vitamins. No matter how much a hen may preen, if good management practices are not employed, the feather quality of your birds is likely to be poor. There are, however, three exceptions to this. Firstly, the very good layers in your flock are likely to have a tattered appearance, displaying broken and brittle feathers — the hen is converting the protein in her food to the production of eggs rather than pretty feathers. Secondly, if you keep a rooster, you may find that he has one or two ‘favourite’ hens. These hens are likely to display brittle and broken feathers caused by the ‘extra’ attention they seem to attract. In such circumstances, it’s best to move the hens to a rooster-free zone. Finally, just before and during moulting you will notice that the feather quality is poor.

Providing best management practices and ensuring your hens have an adequate and balanced diet, water and by minimising stressful conditions in your flock will help to ensure strong feathers which your hens will take great delight in keeping clean!

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