Bird Watcher's General Store

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Bald Birds

Dear Bird Folks,

Last week you talked about weird looking baby birds. But I’m seeing weird looking adult birds, good-looking adult birds whose feathers seem to be falling out in clumps. Are they sick? What’s wrong?
– Linda, Truro

Relax Linda:

The birds that you are seeing are not sick, they are molting. Most people (except for my uncle) change their outfits once or twice a year. Most of our songbirds go through a complete molt in late summer, after the breeding season. Molting and growing new feathers takes a huge amount of energy for birds, so the molting is timed to take place while the weather is still warm and food is still plentiful. Many birds are much quieter during the molting period. They lie low, too embarrassed to be seen with their underwear showing.

The molting starts at the head and works it’s way down toward the tail. Some birds change so slowly that we never even notice, while others can be much more dramatic. We get lots of calls about crestless Cardinals and bald Blue Jays this time of year. And even though most songbirds replace all of their feathers during the summer molt, most songbirds are able to keep enough feathers on them so they can still fly.

Besides needing feathers for flying, birds also need feathers to attract a mate or to hide from an enemy. Most importantly, a bird’s feathers are its only protection from wind, rain, snow, cold and heat. Healthy feathers are critical to birds. A bird can’t slip on an extra sweater when it gets cold or call up L.L. Bean to replace a jacket that it just spilled gravy on. It has to grow its clothes and that takes time.

So don’t worry, Linda, if you see birds with some missing feathers in August. The feathers will grow back in plenty of time for the winter. Now if I can only get the same thing to happen with my hair.