It’s in your nature: Birds and molting
irds aren’t the only vertebrate animals that can fly (bats also can) but they are the only vertebrates with a covering of feathers. The adaptation of feathers was one of the biggest factors that allowed most birds to fly and to achieve and maintain their place on this planet.
Feathers are actually a protein-dense, dead material actually similar to our fingernails and hair. Since feathers are exposed to obstacles and constant wear and tear and get tattered, they need to be replaced.
The process where birds replace their feathers is called molting. For most of the birds you see here in the Times News region, this molt begins soon after the nesting season.
There are two main reasons for that timing. First, it takes a tremendous amount of energy for birds to produce so much protein material to replace all their feathers. If they did so when they are raising and feeding young, it would be difficult for them to get enough food to sustain that process.
The second reason, most male birds of a species transition into their breeding plumage (like a gorgeous scarlet tanager or indigo bunting) so that when they reach a breeding territory, they can announce their presence and mating potential to females. You can probably guess that those advertising feathers not only advertise to potential mates, but make them a bit more vulnerable to predators. This may surprise you, the breeding plumage of male scarlet tanager, for instance, may only last 4 or 5 months.
The majority of their lives is spent covered in their “winter outfit” so that in migration and their tropical wintering areas they are less vulnerable. These birds undergo a gradual molt, slowly losing and replacing feathers.
Ducks, geese and swans however, shed their flight feathers at one time. And as in the songbirds, this occurs after the young are out of the nest and active. These waterfowl are unable to fly for a period of a few weeks because of that molt. They seek some protection though by retreating to the water where they can avoid some predators.
Resident Canada geese, like those at Beltzville Lake, may feed on grasses near the water so they can quickly get to safety. Biologists, knowing this timing, gather enough manpower to encircle the flightless geese in netting and catch and band them. In fact, the Times News staff has reported on this Beltzville banding in the past.
My photos will hopefully show you some of the transformations that our local songbirds undergo. Enjoy, and especially, enjoy getting out there!
Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: ___ species of birds worldwide are flightless. A. no, B. 12, C. 36, D. more than 50.
Last Week’s Trivia Answer: Conifers such as larches lose all their needles. About half of white pine’s needles brown in fall and drop to the ground leaving a great pine needle carpet.
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