Scrub-Jay at the bath.JPG

A Woodhouse’s scrub jay, a bird currently molting in Northern New Mexico, enjoys a bird bath.

Have you noticed any fallen feathers around your backyard? Many of backyard birds are in the middle of their biggest transformation of the year, losing and replacing feathers in a process known as molting.

Molting is when a bird replaces some (partial molt) or all (full molt) of its feathers. Right now, many of backyard birds are in this transition process. Feathers wear out and have to be replaced periodically. Birds have evolved a very orderly process to molt gradually, without hurting their ability to fly or keep warm or dry.

Feathers are important. They keep birds warm (and cool) and dry. They provide color and ornamentation, and they allow birds to fly. Feathers are lightweight and incredibly strong.

Feathers are critical for a bird’s survival and birds spend a lot of time on feather care. They spend up to 10 percent of their day preening their feathers. Bathing rejuvenates feathers, so is an important part of feather care.

In David Sibley’s terrific new book, What it’s Like to be a Bird, we learn that: Small songbirds usually have about 2,000 feathers, fewer in the summer and more in the winter. Larger birds like crows have larger feathers but not more. Water birds have more feathers than land birds, especially on parts of their body that come in contact with water.

Feathers grow from follicles in the skin, rolled up in a cylinder. The tip emerges first. The same feather follicles can grow different colored feathers at different times. In the fall, many species lose their brightly colored nesting feathers and grow drab new feathers. This allows them to blend in, without catching the eye of predators. Some birds (especially males) also molt in the spring, growing brightly colored feathers in order to stand out and attract a mate.

Although some birds may lose patches of feathers and appear “balding,” most birds’ feather loss and replacement are far less noticeable.

Molting is a complicated process that requires a lot of energy. It takes most songbirds about four weeks to fully molt their feathers; however in some cases it may take up to eight weeks to complete. Feathers are made of more than 90 percent protein, primarily keratins, so every molting bird needs extra proteins to grow strong feathers for proper flight and effective insulation until next year’s molt. Peanuts, bark butter (spreadable suet), suet nuggets, nyjer seed, suet cylinders and seed cylinders are a few of the foods you can provide to give birds added protein.

Just a few of birds molting now in Northern New Mexico include: lesser goldfinch, Woodhouse’s scrub jay, mountain and western bluebird, downy woodpecker, ladder-backed woodpecker, northern flicker, white-breasted nuthatch, juniper titmouse and mourning dove.

Some birds, like the lesser goldfinch, also perform a partial molt (head and body) in the spring.

Anne Schmauss is the co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Santa Fe and she loves to hear your bird stories. She is the author of For the Birds: A Month by Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard and has been writing the For the Birds column for The New Mexican for 11 years.

(1) comment

Nancy Lockland

I've noticed many dead birds in general. I went hiking this weekend and saw about 5 dead birds.

Welcome to the discussion.

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