“I’m Molting… Mooollltttiiinnnggg….!” The feathers are flying off and Scooter’s grossing out!
It’s that time of the year, folks! Yup! Molting season is upon us. All of our beautiful Florida backyard habitats are full of the molting scourge that is… nature’s design. But, what is it… Why do birds do it… How prevalent is it… And how long does it last, are all common curiosities related to such an event. And the answers are multiple.
What is molting? Aside from its obvious aesthetically DISpleasing appearance, molting is nothing more than the shedding of old feathers and the replacement of new ones. Although the jury is still out on its complete list of justifications and details, from what experts at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology tell us, seasonally-based hormonal changes triggered in the bird’s physiology begin the process of sloughing off old, broken or worn feathers in order to regrow new, healthy and strong ones. Somewhat akin to replacing hair -humans also have molting periods where hair is lost and replaced (if one is lucky, that is!). It’s just too subtle for us to notice- this is nature’s way of ensuring a healthy and strong generational line.
When do birds molt? While some of Florida’s wild birds, like Hawks, Chickadees, Owls, Thrushes and Jays have only one full molt each year, others, like the brightly colored Tanagers, will have a full molt just after nesting and then a partial molt before mating. Known as a “prenuptial” molt, this molt is designed to ensure the bird’s feathers are brightly colored, strong and healthy to better enhance chances of attracting a mate. Still others, namely two of Florida’s common wild bird inhabitants, the Marsh Wrens and Bobolinks, have two full molts each year.
How to tell the difference between a parasitic issue, and simple molting? While most “naked” wild bird sightings are caused by seasonal molting, some may be seen due to parasitic infestations. Natural seasonal molting will rarely produce lesions and a complete loss of feathers unless the bird injures itself due to normal preening which again, is uncommon. However, some birds can fall victim to parasitic activity so pronounced that they may consistently ruffle feathers, scratch or scrape their heads, wings or tail feathers to the point of irritation and injury. It is this irritation that can cause a loss of feathers due to something else other than a natural molt. However, again, most sightings of birds with missing feathers are due to a natural molt. The birds are perfectly healthy and no intervention should be attempted.
How long does molting last? Since molting depends upon the season and the bird, this is relative; although the usual is 1 to 2 months. However, as some birds tend to molt in patches, it can seem that some individuals molt for longer periods than others. But, since molting does tend to occur within times just before or after more strenuous wildlife events such as breeding, nesting or mating… seeing a single wild bird visitor in various stages of “undress” may seem to appear as though an exorbitant amount of time has passed when, in reality, the bird is merely going through the molting stages which can last as long as the seasonal need requires.
Can we do anything to help? Yes! Molting is physically taxing on Florida’s wild birds. The process of shedding and replacing new feathers requires a great deal of proteins and fats introduced into the bird’s regular diet. Providing WBU fortified seed, blends and suet will help to provide much needed proteins to ensure the molting bird’s feathers are replaced with healthy, strong and brightly colored new ones.
So, while the mystery of molting (Moulting? It’s a “Tomato/Tomahhhto” sorta thing!) carries on in our Florida backyard habitats, it’s startling nature is somewhat more subdued with these tidbits of information. Disease is not running rampant throughout the confines of Florida’s shores, nor are our feathered friends turning to self-mutilation as a means for a stint on Oprah.
Molting is -as nature designed- a normal, safe and natural physical change meant to ensure a healthy and strong wild bird population.