Another use for feathers

Sometimes I take so many photos, I forget what I have, and good ones get lost in the gigabytes of storage on my hard drive.  This past spring was one of those times when I took many more photos than I was able to post.  So, I thought I would backtrack and catch up with a few of the highlights of the previous spring’s bird migration.

Here’s a bird I had never seen before this spring, let alone taken a picture of it.

A Horned Grebe in all its spring feather spendor

A Horned Grebe in all its spring feather splendor posing in the still waters of a local dam on the Mississippi River.

The "horns" are the patches of yellowish feathers on the sides and back of the head, which can be fluffed out to stand erect.

The “horns” are the patches of yellowish feathers on the sides and back of the head, which can be fluffed out to stand erect.

In winter plumage they resemble their cousins the Western Grebe, with the same black and white markings (but with much shorter bills and necks).

By Mike Baird [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Mike Baird [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Like other grebes, and diving ducks, this little bird is a fish eater.  But it has an unusual habit associated with this diet.  It consumes its own feathers to act as a strainer to prevent the fish bones in its stomach from passing into the intestine. The plug of feathers plus any undigested bones, may be egested, similar to what hawks and owls do when they regurgitate the indigestible portions of their diet.  In fact, feather fish strainers are so important to grebe digestion that the parents begin feeding feathers to their chicks as soon as they hatch.  Do other fish-eating birds regurgitate the fish bones as well?  What animals can or would eat bone, anyway, other than hyenas or some vultures who can secrete potent stomach acid?  It’s pretty hard and non-nourishing stuff.

Ron Dudley posted some fantastic photos of several grebe species eating feathers on his Feathered Photography blog.  (Click here to go there)

7 thoughts on “Another use for feathers

  1. When I saw the title of your posting, I imagined all kinds of possibilities, but came nowhere close to guessing the strange truth about how these birds ingest their feathers. It makes sense when you explained it, but does seem unusual. What do herons do? (I see amazing photos from Phil Lanoue of herons and other birds swallowing large fish whole.) Wonderful shots of the grebe, too, Sue. I too have lots of gigabytes of photos I need to look over again.

  2. Phil’s photos got me to wondering as well, so I did a bit of research. Herons, some hawks, and vultures produced a lot of gastric acid, which apparently digests everything to mush — bones, scales, fins, etc. But mergansers, cormorants, perhaps loons, and definitely grebes, probably don’t digest much of the bone in their meal, and instead regurgitate it in a pellet.

  3. Great pictures of this handsome little bird Sue. I didn’t know that some birds used feather sieves in the stomachs, or that herons and vultures have particularly ferocious stomach contents. Fascinating stuff.

    • Neither did I until I stumbled on that website with all the great photos of grebes. It seems other fish eaters let the stomach acid digest the bones instead. I suppose there is some nutrition in them.

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