Not having hands, birds rely mainly on their beaks to clean, smooth, and lubricate their feathers. But a bird can’t use its beak to clean the top of its head or most of its neck. It needs help there. The obvious solution would be for one bird to preen another, the way that monkeys pick through each other’s fur for lice. Many times, birds’ll be bunched up together wing to wing and beak to beak, each preening itself alone. I’ve never seen one bird preen another. Until now.
This morning, I saw a pair of American Crows on the lawn near the parking circle at the end of Spinnaker Way. One crow was preening the head and neck area of the other. As the video shows, the preener opened its beak and ran the other bird’s feathers through them, in a cleaning motion, and sometimes pecked as if removing a nit, while the preened bird held up its head and cooperated like a human getting a haircut.
This action went on for several minutes longer than the little video above. The preener also occasionally worked on the wing and back feathers of the other bird. Sometimes it almost looked like foreplay. The other bird did not reciprocate while I was watching. After some time they both flew off together.
According to the Audubon website, preening each other’s feathers is something that mated pairs of crows do. Male crows tend to be a bit larger than females. If so, the birds in the video are a mated pair in which the male is caring for the female.
I was struck by the contrast between the care these birds showed one another, and their brutality and lack of empathy for the fledglings of other species.