Shedding old and creating new

One of the most fascinating phenomena in the avian world is that time of year when birds moult, that process of shedding feathers to make way for new growth. It’s also a time of year that corresponds with silence, and you may already have noticed a noticeable reduction of bird song in your gardens.  This silence can almost feel as though your birds have decided to flee, but in reality it all boils down to a very basic natural mechanism that birds undergo in their yearly cycle of existence.

In fact, it is not only birds that experience the process of moulting; there are countless creatures across the animal kingdom that moult, and it is not uncommon to observe horns, skin and hair being replaced. In colder climates, certain mammals may shed their fur in order to develop a substantially thicker coat for protection throughout harsh and cold months; snakes, for instance, must shed their skin for the principle purpose of growing larger.

Typically for birds, feathers are replaced to remove old and damaged plumage, which may have become a burden after the hectic breeding and feeding seasons, general wear and tear and even considerable exposure to direct sunlight.  This regrowth ensures a fresh and strong coat ready for the months ahead.

Strength to grow

Successful growth of new plumage requires a steady stream of energy, and this process can be consistently tiring for birds. While a bird moults, there may be time when it is exposed to its colder surroundings due to a thinner coat. This, of course, means that heat loss can be quite severe due to lack of insulation and can quite possibly leave the bird open to predation. As such, moulting does not overlap with other key times of a bird’s life, such as breeding or migration.

One highly noticeable feature of moulting birds is that they can look like scruffy little beasts, often with bald patches; so much so, in fact, that certain species of bird can be hard to recognise. The familiar orange and brown colours of the Robin can be obfuscated by a spotted and mottled look created by a partial moult. This shabby look is soon outlived, as the new plumage will appear provided comfort, warmth and protection for the winter months ahead.

How and when birds moult

The frequency and timing of moulting cycles varies depending on the species. Feathers moult in a symmetrical pattern across the wings, tail and body so balance for flight can be retained. The entire cycle depends on the specific species of bird, but it generally take between 5 to 12 weeks from start to finish, during which the quills loosen, fall out and allow for new growth.

For more information in moulting, please visit the following online resources:

For those non-migratory birds that undergo a full moult, it’s important to supply a readily available range of food in the garden.

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