Honey the Duck preening

I should have filmed this sideways or something, as the iPhone video isn’t that great. However, here you see my duck Honey having a postprandial preen, spreading oil over her feathers, dunking herself, and having a good shake. I’m told she’s the mother and non the timid daughter, because she’s molting and only adults molt. This explains why she’s still here when all her offspring have flown off to Ceiling Cat knows where.

Ducks oil their feathers by picking up oil from a gland at the base of their tail, the uropygial gland. They use their bills to spread this oil over their bodies. When Honey dunks herself in the water, it just rolls off in droplets: water off a duck’s back!

Soon her feathers will be big enough to fly and she’ll be gone. And I’ll be an empty nester!


  1. OwnShadow
    Posted August 2, 2017 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    I can’t decide if ‘Ducks blown by the Wind’ is horrifying or hilarious. But it’s a great video.

  2. Randy schenck
    Posted August 2, 2017 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Yes, I think they molt before the kids arrive so they cannot leave. I thought, in some cases both male and female molt?

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 3, 2017 at 3:30 am | Permalink

      Yes, both sexes molt. Unlike most birds, which molt wing & tail feathers gradually so that they are always capable of flight, many ducks molt all their primaries (wing feathers) at once, rendering them incapable of flight. During this period the males look very much like females, which means they are much better camouflaged then when sporting their gaudy mating colors. (This is called “eclipse plumage.”)

      The second molt occurs in the fall at which time both sexes molt their body feathers and the males reacquire their colorful mating plumage.

      More detail here: http://www.ducks.org/conservation/waterfowl-research-science/understanding-waterfowl-the-amazing-molt

  3. Mary Kay O. Lazarus
    Posted August 2, 2017 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    La Jolie Rousse would like to know, please, why you do not include dogs among your wonderful, enriching posts. Jolie is a red Standard Poodle.


    • Randy schenck
      Posted August 2, 2017 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      Well, at least the question is not coming from a duck.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted August 2, 2017 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      @Mary Does Angelina resemble her? I bet Ms. Rousse is a beaut!

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 3, 2017 at 3:35 am | Permalink

      One of our host’s amusing personal quirks is an extreme preference for cats, at the expense of d*gs. (Once in a while the latter do slip in, though.)

      Please tell Jolie that there are many d*g lovers among the commenters here.

  4. Taskin
    Posted August 2, 2017 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Cute! What a lovely pond for a duck. 🙂

  5. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 2, 2017 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    You’re still young; you’ll find another.

  6. Stephen Barnard
    Posted August 2, 2017 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    The feathers surrounding the preen gland are a very useful material fot tying fishing flies. From Wikipedia:

    Cul de canard (CDC) (French for “duck bottom”) are the feathers from the back of a duck directly around the preen gland (uropygial gland); they are very buoyant due to preen oil produced by the preen gland. They are used when tying dry flies for fly fishing. They owe their buoyancy to their proximity to the ducks preen gland which secretes an oil distributed by the duck as a cleaning and waterproofing measure. It is unnecessary for the angler to add additional oil by way of floatant. Flies incorporating CDC are easy to dress requiring no floatant and popular with anglers and trout alike.[1]

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 3, 2017 at 3:43 am | Permalink

      Most interesting!

      Speaking of uropygial glands…frigatebirds, which are seabirds, cannot settle on the ocean because their glands produce very little oil. If they’re forced down for any reason, their feathers become soaked and they drown!

      Please excuse the free association…

      • Aaron Siek
        Posted August 3, 2017 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

        If I remember correctly from talks given by ornithologists when I worked with waterbirds in oil-spill conditions, frigatebirds are “not waterproof” not because they lack oils as compared to other waterbirds, but because their pennaceous feathers are not as well-developed as other birds; they have adapted as soarers, not as floaters. If you look at the frigatebird’s plumage, you will note a sort of disheveled appearance, as the feathers do not have the fine interlocking barbules that other waterfowl display, and whose plumage appears as tightly interlocking shingles. Frigatebirds take on more water in their plumage because the plumaceous nature of their feathers allows water to cling to the feathers, not because of a lack of oil. (Again, going from memory on this one, but if you see my reply below, you’ll see that in general, waterbirds are waterproof due to their feather structure, and not to their oils, which serve primarily to keep the feathers in good condition but have little effect in actually waterproofing the bird).

        It is true that frigatebirds have smaller oil glands than other waterfowl of similar size, but that may be because they do not depend so much on feather barbule maintenance, as their plumage is not of the stiffer pennaceous type. A bird’s contact with water may have little to do with the size of the uropygial gland; according to Wikipedia (I know, I know): “A study examining the gland’s mass relative to body weight in 126 bird species showed the absence of a clear-cut correlation between the gland’s mass and the degree of birds’ contact with water.”

        Frigatebirds will rarely land on flat ground, either, as they have great difficulty taking off from either water or from land without the help of a drop from a tree or cliff or hillside. They are so well adapted to soaring that even a flapping take-off is difficult for them, whether from water or from land. I do love watching them in the air, though. They are such superb aerialists once aloft!

        • Diane G.
          Posted August 4, 2017 at 3:17 am | Permalink

          Thanks for that!

          And here I thought I’d learned the first story from ornithologists…

          Most interesting. And they are indeed wonderful to watch.

          As are many of the (other?*) pelagics–albatrosses, shearwaters, well, tubenoses in general, etc.

          *Too lazy to look this up–not sure if Frigatebirds are true pelagics as they’re frequently seen nearshore. We even had one spend a few days on Lake Michigan a year or two ago.

  7. Posted August 2, 2017 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    Ah, I see that there’re loads of water hyacinths in the pond! Ducks (and fish) will feed on them too, so there should be no shortage of food if you’re not around, PCC(E). There’s likely duckweed growing there already, so that would be a good thing.
    You can rest easy then, since momma has some ‘street’ smarts.

  8. Aaron Siek
    Posted August 3, 2017 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    It’s interesting that the belief that waterfowl are waterproof due to oil from their uropygial glands spread over the feathers persists so strongly. Studies have shown that the waterproofing effect from the oils is minimal at best, but that it plays a strong role in keeping feathers pliable and in good condition. The waterproofing is actually mechanical: the stiff pennaceous feathers of waterfowl have such finely interlocked barbules and overlap so well that water can’t find ingress, much like good shingling on a roof. (I only bring this up because I spent years as a volunteer working with waterbirds affected by oil spills, with the International Bird Rescue group and with California’s Oil Spill Prevention and Response group, where staff ornithologists made sure we knew that when we were washing oil from the birds, which would also strip them temporarily of their natural oils, we weren’t rendering the birds defenseless against water so long as their plumage was in good condition, as the waterproofing was due to this feather configuration and not to oils on the feathers. It was news to me at the time, too, having just accepted common knowledge previously about the bird’s using oil to waterproof themselves…) Again, though, their natural oils do play a key role in keeping these feathers in good enough condition to Perform their weatherproofing duties.

    This bit from the excellent Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a good, short lay treatment of how feathers waterproof a bird; you’ll note that ‘oils’ are only mentioned as a potential ruiner of good waterproofing!:


    Arranged in an overlapping pattern on a bird’s body to expose the waterproof tips, contour feathers allow water to roll right off a bird’s back. Birds constantly maintain their waterproof coat through extensive grooming, or preening to ensure that every feather is in good shape. The interlocking structure is so important that any disruption to it—such as if spilled oil coats the feathers—leaves the bird waterlogged and helpless. For ducks and birds like the Common Loon (Gavia immer) that spend most of their time in the water, maintaining a waterproof coat is critical for survival.”

    And this from the International Bird Rescue website, on feather waterproofing:

    ‘Bird feathers are naturally waterproof, but to maintain this, each feather must be aligned properly so that water cannot seep through the microscopic barbs and barbules that are part of the vane of each feather. These barbs and barbules hook together like Velcro to form a tight waterproof barrier. Each properly aligned feather overlaps another like the shingles on a roof to create an entire waterproof covering for the bird. It is the bird’s job to maintain its feather structure. While preening, birds distribute natural oils, which help in the long-term maintenance of feathers by keeping the feathers supple so alignment can be maintained.”

    I’ve noticed, though that when you — however gently — try to correct someone who is telling others about ducks and their waterproofing oils, they tend to look at you like you’re either a)crazy, or b)a jerk, because *everyone knows* that it’s the oils doing the work, so mostly I just keep mum, except around more science-friendly acquaintances, who are generally happier to hear about the real mechanism of waterproofing in waterfowl. Old notions die hard, man.

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 4, 2017 at 4:06 am | Permalink

      I’ve noticed that when some people gain knowledge of a particular piece of information they frequently get on their high horse about how benighted and ignorant everyone else is about this phenomenon.

      Really? This happens to you that often and you get that much push-back? I suggest you run off some copies of the relevant articles to distribute the next time you’re faced with this annoying stubbornness.

      (FWIW, I was once a doctoral candidate at Cornell, in biology, and spent a lot of time at Sapsucker Woods. Have you been there? Thanks for the “short, lay treatment,” though.)

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 6, 2017 at 3:04 am | Permalink

      Aaron, I hope you see this. Please forgive my snippy reply–it’s been weighing on my conscience ever since I posted it. I am very sorry.

      Suffice it to say that you struck a nerve, the sensitivity of which actually has nothing to do with you or your remark.

      And thank you for all your bird-rescue efforts!

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