We have our natural hair color and then we have those colors that, at the time anyway, seemed like a good idea. Birds are the same. Not about hair of course, but about their feathers.
Birds have their “basic” plumage, which we often see during the winter or non-breeding months of the year. Basic plumage is like our natural hair color.
Birds also have their “alternate” plumage, which we typically see during the summer or breeding season. It’s when gold finches become brilliant yellow and the indigo bunting is a striking blue.
WHAT IS MOLTING?
The process birds go through when changing feathers is called molting.
Molting birds can look downright unattractive. And like us, they can be moody about it.
Because feathers aren’t living tissue they can’t be repaired. Instead, when they are damaged, worn out, or old, new feathers replace the ones that fall out.
Replacing feathers with new ones is a complex, hormonal process called molting. Birds can molt one feather at a time, a few at a time, or all at once.
Small birds tend to go for it and replace all their feathers at the same time. Some species have partial molts replacing their head feathers, for example. The big guys with large feathers, like eagles and pelicans—they replace their flight feathers only a few at a time. It takes much longer to grow these kinds of feathers and it may take several years for a full replacement.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Molting, migration, and breeding are costly when it comes to energy consumption and because of that, birds make sure these three activities don’t overlap.
The most common molting period is just after the breeding season when food sources are still good, but chicks are no longer demanding constant attention. It’s during this time when birds can focus on refreshing their plumage just before migration. The second most common period is just before the breeding season when food sources are increasing but chicks have left the nest.
Molting generally means two things:
- Molting birds have a mix of new and old feathers, which gives them a mottled, unkept sort of look. Sometimes molting can make it hard to tell what type of bird you’re looking at. The exception is newly fledged birds. It’s only when a bird first leaves its nest do all its feathers grow in at the same time. Youth… it’s wasted on the young.
- Molting birds can demonstrate behavior changes. Some will become reclusive, disappearing from where they are normally seen to “sulk” in denser forests or foliage and keep quiet.
Whether molting birds genuinely sulk is an unanswered question (we do know it’s not painful.) But birds whose flight feathers are in molt stage are wise to lay low since they are more vulnerable to predators. Wood thrushes, for example, are less active and stop singing.
YOU CAN HELP KEEP MOLTING BIRDS SAFE
There are many ways backyard birders can help nature’s ambassadors throughout the year and molting season is no different.
The easiest ways we can help lessen the danger during molting is to provide a reliable source of energy-rich food, along with safe, secure shelter for birds that become more vulnerable while molting.
Seeds and insects that are both high in protein and fat will help sustain molting birds when it may be too dangerous to forage.
Dense shrubs, healthy trees, and under growth can provide shelter to vulnerable birds.
As the well-informed folks at The Spruce say if birds trust their habitat to meet their molting needs, they will stay, and that gives you and me the chance to see molting up close and learn even more about our feathered friends.