Feathers are one of nature's most stupendous feats of engineering, as strong and functional as they are beautiful. Although feathers vary from species to species -- compare the feathers of a penguin with the plumes of an ostrich to see how much -- the birds we keep as pets have three basic feather types:
-- Down feathers: These soft, short feathers, usually found closest to the skin, serve to keep the bird warm. Down feathers are the first feathers a baby bird has, and they function as sort of an avian layette.
The heat-trapping qualities of down feathers should come as no surprise; humans have used the down feathers of birds, especially geese, in any number of stay-warm products, from comforters to jackets.
On some species, a few of the down feathers are made to crumble: These "powderdown" feathers break into fine dust to aid in the bird's grooming. Birds from the more arid environments -- such as some parts of Africa and Australia -– are dustier than those from rainforests because of these feathers. Hug a cockatoo while wearing a dark shirt and you'll see what I mean: You'll find yourself covered with soft, white dust!
-- Contour feathers: These feathers have down "puffs" at their base and are stiffer toward the end. Contour feathers cover most of the body, including the down feathers. Dr. T.J. Lafeber, a pioneering avian veterinarian, describes the relationship of the down feathers to the contours as similar to a lined windbreaker: The down feathers keep warmth in, while the contours keep wind and rain at bay.
Unlike the fur of mammals, which grows pretty evenly over the entire body, contour feathers are arranged in tracts, between which are areas of bare skin.
-- Flight feathers: The longest and stiffest feathers are those used for flight, and they are found both on the wings and on the tail. The flight feathers are really modified contour feathers, specifically evolved to get the bird up into the air and help keep it there.
Flight feathers have little or no down at the base. If you look at one closely, you'll notice threads (called "barbules") protruding from the stiff barbs that come off the main shaft. On each barb, the barbules on the upper edge have hooklets, and the ones on the lower edge have ridges for catching the hooklets. The result is a strong, smooth, interwoven surface perfect for supporting flight.
A single feather may contain up to a million tiny barbules. When you watch your bird grooming his feathers, you will see him rearranging the location of the feather as well as pulling the feathers through his beak gently, to help re-lock hooklets that may have popped loose -- kind of like Velcro that came unattached and needs attention.
The gift of flight doesn't come without a price, and for birds that means a large part of their time is spent keeping feathers in fine shape, a behavior called "preening." Birds are so dedicated to keeping every one of the couple of thousand feathers they have in good order that they make even the neatest human seem like a slob by comparison.
Want to do your part? Help your bird with his grooming by getting him wet on a regular basis. Some birds enjoy being misted with a spray bottle, while others have perches in the shower and will go in when you do. Still others enjoy taking a bath in their cages. Experiment until you find out what suits your bird best, then give him a drenching as frequently as every day. It'll help him keep those marvelous feathers in fine form.
PETS ON THE WEB
If you haven't heard of Mr. Winkle yet, chances are you will soon. The fuzzy-headed little dog has been on the cover of a national pet magazine and the subject of his own calendar and, soon, his own book. He also has his own keyword (Mr. Winkle) on AOL.
Mr. Winkle is awfully cute, and he has his own photographer. What more would a dog need to become a celebrity? Photographer Lara Jo Regan has made him look his best on his Web site, www.mrwinkle.com. Look at the pictures, watch the movie, and if you can't resist, buy the merchandise. Mr. Winkle approves of it all.
On these hot days, it's perfectly fine to give pets ice cubes to enjoy. Dogs and cats may even enjoy "petsicles" made from chicken or beef broth and frozen in ice-cube trays.
One way to keep a pet's drinking water cool is to add homemade ice blocks. Freeze water in margarine tubs, then add a block of ice to the water dish before you leave for work in the morning. You like cold treats and cool drinks on hot days, and so does your pet!
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: When I moved to my present home almost a year ago, I moved Patches, her food dish and litter box in first. I put her box and food in the laundry room. After all the moving was done, I closed all the outside doors, leaving the door to the laundry room open.
When I let her out of her carrier in the laundry room, she hid under the steps or behind the water heater. She stayed there for several hours. I got a familiar blanket for her, and she and I spent the rest of the night in "our" chair watching videos. By morning she was fine.
Love your column, and read it every time it's in my paper. Keep 'em coming. -– W.M., via e-mail
A: Congratulations! You eased Patches through one of the most difficult times in any cat's life: a change of residence.
It's always important to proceed with safety and patience when moving a cat. Your cat settled down in short order, while another cat may take days or even weeks to adjust.
Limiting a cat's access to a small room -– such as the laundry room you chose -– makes her feel more secure while she's adjusting. Make sure she has everything she needs -- food, water, litter box, something to scratch, something to sleep on, and a toy or two.
Never rush or force a cat. Let her choose when to explore the rest of the house, and if she wants to view the world from under the bed, let her.
You obviously have a very good relationship with Patches. That's what allowed you to "read" her feelings and provide her with some affection when she needed it. It surely reassured her that her surroundings may have changed, but you are still there for her.
Q: About three years ago I bought my kids a couple of budgies. I suspected that they would not pay too much attention to the birds after we got them, so I deliberately bought two (so they would bond).
The birds are indeed pretty much ignored, except that their cage is kept clean and they are fed and watered daily. Of course by this time they are quite hand-shy.
Is there an easy way to tell if they are happy or miserable? The budgies do not feather-pick, and they chirp to each other quite regularly. Does this mean they are happy enough with the current arrangements, or do I need to start trying to rehabilitate them? -- G.H., via e-mail
A: Too many budgies end up like these, a pet ignored by the children who wanted them. (At least these birds are well-cared-for, which isn't always the case in such situations.) What a shame for any budgie to be underappreciated, for a well-socialized budgie is a marvelous pet, sweet and affectionate. Many are great talkers, too.
It sounds as if your two are bonded to each other and happy enough with the situation. It wouldn't hurt to try working with them individually, though. Aside from the socializing (which they may not like), I'd suggest some environmental enrichment for your budgies. The cages that are matched to birds at pet-supply stores are usually at least one size too small. The more space to explore, the better, especially for a cage-bound bird.
Also, make sure they have toys to play with, and lots of fresh foods to eat. Variety is important when it comes to food, not just for the nutritional value of vegetables, fruits, bread, scrambled eggs, pasta and more, but also because different shapes, colors, tastes and textures help with boredom.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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