Effects of access to preen gland secretions on mallard plumage

Naturwissenschaften. 2010 Jun;97(6):577-81. doi: 10.1007/s00114-010-0673-z. Epub 2010 May 2.


Preen glands exist in almost every bird species and several non-exclusive functions have been proposed for this gland and the oils that it produces. One function generally admitted is that the oily secretions of the preen gland would provide a waterproofing layer when spread over feathers. Alternatively, several authors have proposed that plumage waterproofness is mostly due to the spatial micro-structure of feathers. The purpose of this study was to examine, by manipulating the access to the preen gland, the effect of the preen oil on the plumage waterproofness and condition. To explore this question, we carried out two independent experiments where we temporarily blocked access to the preen gland secretions with a removable mechanism in one group of captive mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), whilst a second group of birds had access to gland secretions. In a long-term experiment (3 months of treatment) and a short-term experiment (10 days), we measured plumage water retention and condition. After 3 months without access to preen glands, we found a significant decrease of plumage condition and an associated increase in plumage water retention. Moreover, we found a significant correlation between plumage condition and water retention ability. In contrast, after 10 days of treatment, no significant effect was found on plumage condition and water retention. Our study shows that preen oil acts to maintain plumage condition and suggests that feather microstructure is essential to maintain plumage waterproofness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Water / metabolism
  • Ducks / physiology*
  • Feathers / physiology*
  • Grooming / physiology*
  • Oils / analysis
  • Scent Glands / metabolism
  • Scent Glands / physiology*
  • Sebaceous Glands / metabolism
  • Sebaceous Glands / physiology


  • Oils