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What is the white powder that pigeons leave on my birdbath?

Sent in by Frances McDermott, Middlesex

The white substance you refer to is known as feather dust and originates from the down feathers. These soft feathers, known as powder down, not only provide woodpigeons with great insulation, they also have fine barbs which crumble to form this waxy dust which the bird then uses to preen the outer feathers to make them waterproof.

Birds with powder down feathers such as woodpigeons and members of the parrot family generally have a reduced or no preen gland, which is how most other birds look after their feathers. Feather dust is therefore vital in order to keep the woodpigeons feathers waterproof and in good condition. Bathing is an important part of keeping feathers in good condition for all birds but especially important for birds with powder down. Washing the dirt-covered powder off enables the woodpigeons to reapply fresh powder to their outer feathers in order to keep them water proof and well insulated.

The powder deposits on the pond are not harmful to the pond wildlife or other birds that may be using the pond for drinking or bathing and will eventually disperse with the movement of the water. It is not just on ponds that woodpigeons leave behind feather dust, it can often be found on windows too as collisions are a frequent occurrence. A clear outline of the pigeon is often visible as the dust adheres to the window. We recommend sticking silhouettes to the outside of windows to break up the reflection as this can help prevent such incidents.

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