Your Backyard Bird Isn’t Going Bald, It’s Molting

Molting is a Normal Process for Birds Replacing Worn or Damaged Feathers to Keep Them in Top Flying Condition

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If you’re seeing birds that look radically different with patchy coloring or missing their beautiful feathers on their head and appear to be balding, don’t panic, the bird is going through a normal transformational change called molting.

Molting is shedding and regrowing feathers to keep birds in top flying condition. Shedding worn-out feathers gives birds new, strong, warm feathers to help them through winter.

Several of our backyard birds, including male and female cardinals, Blue Jays, Red-winged Blackbirds, and our adorable Tufted Titmouse, are losing their head feathers and looking like they are wearing hoodies. Others look like bird zombies. But don’t worry, this look is temporary, and soon your backyard birds will look as fabulous as you remember them.

If your backyard birds look like this Blue Jay, don’t worry, the bird is in its summer molt

Why Do Birds Molt

Molting is a transformational process for birds. Even though feathers are incredibly strong, their continual flying, rubbing against things, contending with parasites such as feather mites, and overall weakening due to exposure to sun and other elements all damage feathers.

But Mother Nature has an answer to keep birds flying high. Molting.

Feathers, like hair, grow from follicles in the skin, so a new feather from the bottom of the follicle pushes out the old one. This process occurs gradually to ensure there are no bald patches. But, of course, a cardinal looks strange to us without its flowing crest of feathers.

Molting patterns depend on the bird species, age, and time of the year. Most birds molt once a year, and sometimes it’s split into two or three molt periods right before and after breeding. Small songbirds take 3-5 weeks to molt and regrow their flight feathers, with migratory birds completing the process the quickest.

All birds molt, even owls. Magma, a beautiful Eastern Screech Owl, is all eyes after losing his head feathers to his summer molt

Molt Cycles

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, molting varies by species, but all birds fall into one of three categories.

One molt per year. Some examples of these birds include chickadees, flycatchers, hawks, hummingbirds, jays, owls, swallows, thrushes, vireos, and woodpeckers.

A complete molt and partial molt before breeding season. Birds in this group include migratory birds like buntings, tanagers, and warblers that molt all their feathers after the nesting season and before the next breeding season. They have a partial molt of body feathers, providing males with brighter breeding plumage. Females don’t molt into bright plumage but go through a partial molt.

Two complete molts per year. Only a few bird species have two molts per year, and these birds live in areas where the environment causes significant wear on feathers. Examples of these birds include Bobolinks and Marsh Wrens. Male Bobolinks look dramatically different from summer to winter, while the Marsh Wrens look the same.

Do Young Birds Molt?

Some young birds undergo a partial molt to lose juvenile body feathers. For example, young American Robins lose their spotty-looking juvenile feathers and are replaced by the orange breast and brown back of adult robins. Feathers play an essential role in helping birdwatchers spot a young bird.

Don’t worry if you se bald-looking birds. Your beautiful backyard bird is in its summer molt to keep it in top flying condition

Does Molting Hurt Birds?

Molting doesn’t hurt, but it drains the bird’s resources, so there can be heat loss when feathers are shed, affecting the bird’s insulation, and when flight feathers are shed, it may require more energy to attain flight.

For this reason, some birds become inconspicuous during their molding period because they’re more vulnerable to predators. Ducks, geese, and swans lose their flight feathers all at once, so they become flightless for a period. So timing is important, and birds time their molts to avoid periods of high energy demands like nesting or migration.

So if you see a strange-looking bird, don’t worry. It’s most likely one of your backyard birds going through its molting period. Embrace the molt and appreciate the transformational process that our feathered friends go through. It’s a vital part of a bird’s life, and soon they’ll look like how you remember them.

If you have any questions or concerns about the birds in your backyard, don’t hesitate to contact your local birding community or wildlife experts. Let’s continue to support and protect our avian friends.

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