Sep 06
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Molting White-breasted Nuthatch

Molting White-breasted Nuthatch

Have you seen any feathers on the ground lately?

Its molting season for many of the birds that visit our yards. Molting is the process of losing old feathers and growing fresh replacements.

It’s not unusual to find a feather or two this time of year. Wing and tail feathers are often the easiest to find due to their length. Can you see the newest, half-grown feathers on the wing of the White-breasted Nuthatch pictured above? Look closely.

Molting is easier to see in birds like vultures and hawks as they soar overhead. Look for short or missing feathers on each wing or tail.

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Mar 02
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Bird feeding activity across the country has been unusually slow this winter. My yard has been slow, too. The overall mild weather, lack of bitter cold snaps and little snow has made the birds seemingly disappear. Take heart! The end is near.

Spring is on its way bringing with it the hope and promise of renewed bird activity. Birds will be migrating through looking for food at your feeders to help refuel from their journey. Others will use feeders as a supplemental energy source as they establish territories, attract mates and raise families. But until then, there are things you can do now to end the doldrums and enjoy birds sooner.

Cater to the locals – Not all the birds have disappeared! Make sure to cater to the local birds that are still making appearances at your feeders however sporadically. I still have regular visits from woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, wrens and cardinals.

Don’t let your feeders sit empty – Make sure to keep food fresh for when birds return.

Try new foods – It’s a great time to try new foods to attract new birds. I’ve had great success with sporadic bluebird visits by offering Bark Butter Bits, mealworms, cylinders with fruit and blends with sunflower chips. I’ve heard of some others that have wonderful success with Bark Butter and mealworms.

Goldfinches are hungry – American Goldfinches have begun their spring molt and are very hungry. Be sure Nyjer is available and keep an open water source as they drink often.

Provide water – The sight and sounds of moving water attracts the greatest variety of birds to your yard.

So, take heart! The end of slow bird feeder activity is near and there are steps you can take to make it “end” a bit sooner in your yard.

Tell us about the activity at your feeders.

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Aug 29
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August and September are prime times for many of our backyard feathered friends to change their garb. In a process called molting, birds are growing new feathers to replace the old ones.

Similar to dogs and cats shedding, birds typically molt in stages or patterns. They would be too vulnerable if they dropped all their feathers at once. The process usually takes a month or two.

Check out the above picture of the Indigo Bunting’s wing. The little feathers in the middle of the wing are not defective; they are new feathers that are still growing.

Most birds molt their wing feathers a few at a time. That way they are able to continue flying while molting. Pay attention to soaring hawks or vultures and you can often see a shorter feather or two on one wing with a mirrored scenario on the other wing. Tail feathers and body feathers are replaced in a similar fashion.

It takes a lot of protein and energy to change all those feathers. Each feather is made up of over 90% protein and the process of growing feathers burns extra calories. I can tell when my backyard birds are molting from how often I have to fill my feeders. The birds go through a lot of food; especially high-protein foods like Nyjer, peanuts, tree nuts and sunflower seeds.

Look for signs of birds molting in your yard. There could be a few stray feathers on the ground. The birds could look fuzzy or ragged; similar to the Indigo Bunting’s head pictured above. There are also uncommon instances of bald birds. Check out a picture of a bald-headed Cardinal on a previous blog post by clicking here.

What signs have you seen in the changing of the garb?

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Jul 08
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It happened just the other day.

A neighbor stopped by while I was working in my yard to ask a question about a “bald –headed” cardinal he was seeing at his feeders. It was the first occurrence of a question that seems to surfaces every year at about this time.

As we enter the period of post-breeding molt for many birds, reports of “bald-headed birds” come across my desk on a regular basis. Most commonly I hear about Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals and Common Grackles at feeders with a complete lack of feathers on their heads. While the rest of the bird’s body looks normal, a completely bald bird is certain to raise curiosity…it is not a pretty sight!

While a definitive explanation is still not known, this unusual molting pattern is most commonly attributed to bird mites infesting the birds head. The theory is that the mites burrow into the skin and cause the feathers to fall out all at once. The assumption is that the head is the most vulnerable site due to the difficulty a bird has in preening it thoroughly.

There is also anecdotal evidence pointing towards the fact that, in some cases, a simultaneous molt of all the head feathers may just be a normal occurrence for a very small percentage of individual birds.

Other experts speculate that the causes may be due to different factors such as nutritional deficiencies or environmental conditions.

Whatever the causes are, bird banding studies show that most birds recover from their period of baldness within a few weeks, and that birds recaptured in succeeding years often show no reoccurrence of this unusual molting behavior.

So be on the lookout for the “bald- headed” birds in your yard and let us hear about it by posting a comment here or by posting on the WBU Facebook page.

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