How Do Birds With Long Necks Keep Their Feathers Clean? The Answer, Pectinate Toes with Built in Combs In Their Toenails
A Short Description of Pectinate Toes
Nature is full of wonderful adaptations that answer questions that we as humans haven't even thought to ask, but that concern the animals they involve daily. One of those questions, that led to this blog post, was, "How do birds with long necks and beaks preen their heads to keep them looking good and the feathers aligned?" After a quick bit of digging, and checking out the stuffed and mounted great blue heron in our education center, I came up with the answer. They use their toes. More specifically they have what are called pectinate toes.
Pectinate toes are usually found in birds of the Order Ciconiiformes and the family Ardeidae which includes herons, egrets, and bitterns. There are a few other species of birds that have pectinate toes, such as barn owls and night jars such as common night hawks. A pectinate toe is usually the longest forward facing toe on a bird's foot, and can be found on one or both feet. This toe has a special toenail with serration or ridges on the inner edge that closely resemble a comb. The comb is thought to help with preening, cleaning and straightening feathers, removing feather sheaths, and helping to keep the bird aerodynamic. I think it's probably also for a really good scritch on those itchy bits that are out of reach by the beak.
Photographing the pectinate toe, or even getting close enough to see one, is nearly impossible. However, if you can find mounted specimens of the birds or a friendly wildlife rehabber that doesn't mind showing you bird toes you might be able to sneak a peek. One of the best ways to see the toe in action is to watch the birds during a grooming session and see how they use their feet and toes.
Check out Dan Tallman's Bird Blog for some more great pictures of pectinate toes on herons and a nighthawk. Check out Owl Foundation website for a picture of a barn owl pectinate talon.