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Nature Reflections - August 25

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Nature Reflections

August 25, 2005

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Gray MerriamLegaleseGeneral information and opinion on legal topics by Rural Legal ServicesNature Reflectionsby Jean GriffinNight Skiesby Leo Enright


I have a number of Black-capped Chickadees coming to my feeders, and two in particular caught my attention. Both were rather dishevelled in their appearance, and one looked as if it had had the feathers on the back of the head pulled out. This did not stop their busyness - finding a fat sunflower seed (they really seemed to prefer those that were already shelled), then flying to a safe place to eat. Safe places were not readily available, because as soon as they flew off with food they were followed by squawking youngsters.


The youngsters were in bright, fresh plumage. Was it the task of raising these babies until they were able to fend for themselves that had brought these two adults to such unkempt appearances? Probably not. They are probably going through a molt to replace worn-out or damaged feathers (which may have been the result of the task of parenting!).

Feathers are a most important part of any bird anatomy, and perform several vital functions. They serve as insulation, and water-proofing, are essential for flight, and the colour of the feathers may provide camouflage or for species recognition and displays during courtship and breeding behaviour. So what else is a bird to do when the feathers have been damaged, or worn, but to replace them - by molting.

The old, worn feathers are loosened by the growth of new intruding feathers and eventually are pushed out. Many adult birds will molt once or twice a year, and the number of times relates to the wear tear of the feathers. A bird that migrates a long distance, or one that lives in thick brush dodging among twigs will wear out more rapidly than those that live in open country or do not migrate.

When a species molts depends on the need. Birds, like my chickadees, who will stay in this area during the winter, will need more insulating feathers during that time, and winter plumage may contain as half again as many feathers as summer plumge - they have to be ready for the cold. Another thought - a bird cannot change colour from a bright summer plumage to a more drab protective winter colour without changing the feathers.

Ducks, which tend to be heavy relative to their wing surface, will change their feathers all at once in a period as short as two weeks or up to a month. At this time they will be hiding on secluded lakes where there is better safety from predators. Some of the hawks or eagles may replace their feathers over a period of two years or more - a much more gradual process. Many of the smaller birds, like the chickadees, will do it in 5 to 12 weeks. In fact, I already see an improvement in the appearance of the two that first caught my attention.

Many males will molt into their most colorful breeding plumage just prior to the breeding season (which may be a second yearly molt for them). But if this is a Redpoll winter, take a close look at the birds when they first appear. The pink color will not be very noticeable - even though they already have their bright breeding plumage! It is hidden - the rosiness of breeding colour will gradually emerge as the feathers get worn down over the winter - they will not need to molt to go through courtship and breeding!

Observations - Please share what you have seen - call Jean at 268-2518 or email

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