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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.

Contact Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com.

A spring male scarlet tanager can evoke some gasps, but remember that scarlet plumage only lasts for about four or five months. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
As summer progresses, the male scarlet tanager's red plumage is gradually replaced by yellowish feathers, as seen here.
A gorgeous male black-throated green warbler in breeding plumage in May.
A black-throated green warbler photographed the first week of October in its nonbreeding plumage after the summer molt.
Another spring beauty is the male rose-breasted grosbeak in its breeding plumage. This one was gracing a white ash tree along Lizard Creek.
That brilliantly feathered male grosbeak has molted and by August begins wearing its nonbreeding plumage.
This photo shows a March male goldfinch just beginning its molt from its nonbreeding plumage.
A male American goldfinch sports its beautiful summer plumage before its molt.
Few would doubt that the male wood duck in breeding plumage is “one beautiful bird.”
This male wood duck has molted in summer and is in its eclipse plumage. A far cry from its plumage three months earlier.
This Beltzville Lake Canada goose “sports” a leg band. It was probably captured in early summer after it molted its flight feathers and was unable to fly.