When do birds lose their feathers and why?

Yikes! Are some of the birds at your feeder looking a little rough around the edges? Don’t worry. They’re not ill (although their disheveled look might suggest otherwise). They’re probably just molting! At this time of year, many birds lose plenty of feathers and grow brand new ones.

So what’s with the turnover? It turns out there are plenty of reasons that birds molt.

Reason #1. They’re growing up!

Juvenile Northern Cardinal

Sweet little chick has flown the coop and with his new independence comes new feathers! You see, as fledglings grow up, they don’t need their soft down feathers anymore. What they need are stronger and more durable feathers (including their flight feathers!). While most birds will only molt once as they go from fledgling to adult, bigger birds like raptors will molt more regularly. For these birds, it can take years before they will grow in all their adult feathers. Seriously. Eagles, for example, can take up to five years to grow all their adult plumage.

Reason #2. They’re getting ready for the winter.

Female Northern Cardinal in the fall

Whether they’re migrating south or braving Canada’s harsh winters, birds will often molt as they head into fall. They’re finally getting a break from raising all those fledglings and it’s the perfect time to hang out at the bird feeder, fatten up and grow some new feathers. Plus, for many birds who’ve shown off their brightly coloured plumage all summer long, it’s time for them to shed those vivid reds, yellows, blues and grow more muted brown and grey feathers. After all, they’re not looking to attract any new mates right now – who are they trying to impress? Their new feathers will grow in in the late summer and early fall and they will often grow more feathers at this time to keep warmer.

Reason #3. They’re looking to mate.

Male and female Downy Woodpeckers

When the weather warms up, many birds will drop their dull winter feathers and start to grow bright plumage. Have you ever noticed that it’s often males that don bright feathers? That’s because they’re showing off. It’s true. The brighter the look, the more attention they get from the ladies.

Reason #4. Their feathers have some wear and tear.

Turkey Vulture gaining its balance

You try being decked out in feathers for months on end without a little damage. It’s impossible! Feathers can become worn out from all sorts of things – entering and exiting nests on repeat during the spring and summer months, flying for hours during migration, and so much more. Sometimes birds have no choice but to shed a feather or two and grow in some brand new ones.

How does molting affect them?

Male American Goldfinch mid-molt

Growing new feathers takes a lot out of our birds. In a word, it’s exhausting. The whole process of molting takes between one and three months. Most of the time birds will molt when they’ve got a little time to rest. That means no new feathers when they’re migrating or nesting (except for the odd feather or two that might be damaged and need replacing).

How can you help?

Two American Goldfinches feeding

The truth is, if birds don’t get the right nutrition while they’re molting, they might grow weak feathers. And nobody wants to migrate or mate when they’ve got weak feathers! It’s just not…becoming. Or practical. So make sure you are stocking your birdfeeder with quality seed. And take a look around your yard to see if you can provide more shelter in the form of coniferous trees and shrubs to keep them safe from predators during this vulnerable time. While you’re at it, why not add plants that offer berries and attract insects they might like to snack on too? Anything you can do to give your backyard birds a leg…err…wing up while they’re molting will be much appreciated by your feathered friends.

Learn more about backyard birds at WildAboutBirds.ca