GJ BIRDING: Birds and their feathers molt together

Larry Collins
Free Press Home & Garden Columnist

Other than covering up their naked bodies, what are a bird’s feathers for?

Feathers are responsible for more than just a bird’s ability to fly, they provide weather protection. Feathers make a bird virtually waterproof as well as providing insulation for cold weather, especially during winter.

However, a bird’s feathers do wear out and need to be replaced. This process is called molting. Typically, birds molt feathers in regular patterns or on specific parts of their bodies. It may take weeks or months for birds to complete the molting cycle. Actual molting time varies between species of birds and geographic regions but generally takes about 4 weeks. Summer and fall molts are usually complete molts (head, body, flight and tail feathers), whereas spring molts are partial molts (head and body), and done only by a few bird species.

When molting, birds shed their flight feathers symmetrically. The first feather on each wing molts at the same time, then the second, and so on. This symmetrical process allows birds to molt wing feathers without affecting their ability to fly. The subsequent sets of feathers will molt as soon as the prior set has grown to about half of its normal size. Most of our backyard bird visitors molt from July to September.

The main ingredients necessary for growing new feathers are proteins (over 90% of the feather consist of proteins) and fats. During the molting process, birds will eat more of their daily diet and/or seek out foods high in protein and fat. These foods satisfy both the extra energy requirements and the needed building blocks for developing new feathers. Birds also need extra fats in the spring to provide the proper coloration to best attract a mate. If the birds lack these proper nutrients, it could be a difficult winter and a lonely spring!

You can more readily attract molting birds to your feeders with high-protein and high-fat foods like suet, peanut butter, peanuts, sunflower chips, and Nyjer.

Summer is generally the driest time of the year with August usually having the lowest monthly rainfall. Birds are always searching for reliable water sources to drink and bathe to help keep their feathers in good condition. Invite a wide variety of birds to your yard by offering water. You can offer birds water with bird baths, drippers and misters. Whatever source of water you decide to provide for the birds, it’s important to keep it clean. Replenish water often, and scrub bird baths and accessories as needed to prevent algae and bacteria from building up. Bird baths can be cleaned with soap and water or a bleach and water (1 part bleach to 10 parts water) solution to remove mold and hard-water deposits. Animal- and bird-friendly chemicals are available to add to a bird bath to help prevent the algae and bacteria build-up. Birds are particularly attracted to moving water. Battery- and solar-operated components are a great add-on option that create motion on the water surface and can catch the eye of passing birds, prompting them to stop and drink or bathe. When temperatures are high, birds are thirsty and looking for a way to cool down; let’s help them out!

Local bird expert Larry Collins owns Wild Birds Unlimited, 2454 Hwy. 6&50, which caters to folks who want the best backyard birdfeeding experience possible. Email your birdfeeding and birding questions to and he’ll answer them in his bi-weekly Q&A column in the Free Press.

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