Why does a bird scratch its head?

on 2nd March 2007


Yes, why does a bird scratch its head? Can we assume the head is itching? I suppose so. The presence of ectoparasites may be be the cause of the itch!

The real reason for scratching can be to arrange those feathers on the head and neck that cannot be reached by the bills.

Birds preen their feathers, spreading a fatty secretions obtained from the uropygial or preen gland located somewhere on the rump. This oil is spread over the feathers, possible to waterproof them, although there are no proofs that this is so. Ornithologists now believe that the oil is a sort of conditioner that maintains the skin supple, which in turn prevents the feathers and scales from turning brittle. The oil may also help control growth of undesirable fungi and at the same time encourage the desirable. These latter fungi are claimed to inhibit the presence of lice on the feathers.

Anyway, spread of this oil is usually done with the help of the bill. But it is not possible for the bill to reach the feathers on the head. So the oil is rubbed on the bird’s foot with the help of the bill and the bird in turn scratches its head, transferring the oil to the head feathers.

The Grey-faced(?) Buzzard (Butastur indicus) in the picture at the top is obviously enjoying its scratch. Note that the eye is covered by the nictitating membrane as scratching is going on. This is probably to protect the eye.

Text by YC Wee, image by Chan Yoke Meng.

Note: The bird is probably a honey buzzard (Pernis sp.), see comment.

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

Other posts by YC Wee

2 Responses

  1. Many birds spread the uropygial oil or/and down powder on their heads directly by rubbing their heads vigorously over their lower back. (THe oil not only conditions their feathers but also is a vitamin D3 precursor that helps with calcium homeostasis when ingested.)

    I believe during preening many birds usually chew off the dead sheath of new prickly pin feathers, remove thin layers of dead skin, excess powder, or excess down feathers. Unable to remove these from their heads with their beak and without an immediate partner to allopreen, they will scratch their heads to relieve the irritation (itchiness?) of pins poking their skin, and buildup of dead cells.

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