Fabulous Feathers – Time for a Change
A quick quiz: What is a feather made of?
And it is not, “Snips and snails, and puppy dogs' tails.” But it is made from the same thing as a little boy’s hair…protein! Over 90% of a feather, or a hair, is made up of a tough protein called keratin. In fact, a bird’s feathers contain over 25% of the total protein found within its entire body. Who knew?
A little longer quiz: How often do birds grow new feathers?
Not as easy to answer…it can vary depending on the bird species.
All birds grow an entire body full of new feathers as youngsters in the nest. It is the only time in a bird’s life that it will grow all of its feathers at one time. It boggles the mind to think that a chickadee can grow all of its feathers and be ready to leave its nest in as little as 11 days!
Feathers are amazingly tough…but they do wear out and need to be replaced. Most adult song birds will molt (shed) and replace their feathers once a year, usually after their nesting duties are completed. A majority of backyard feeder birds perform this annual molt from July-September, but some, like Downy Woodpeckers and Eastern Bluebirds continue well into October. Having a strong set of fresh new feathers is of tremendous benefit to birds that are facing the rigors of migration or the struggles of surviving a long, cold winter.
Come nesting season, some of our backyard birds exchange just a portion of their feathers for more colorful breeding plumage. While American Goldfinches do molt and replace all their feathers (body, wings and tail) each autumn, come spring, they molt only their body feathers to transform into their showy yellow courtship attire.
Whatever the reason for growing new feathers, it comes at a high price. The demand for energy and nutrition during this process is through the roof, and large amounts of protein and fat are essential for being able to create strong and colorful feathers.
Look around your yard today. Nesting season is ending for some birds, and adults are starting to take on that “shaggy” look that signals the start of their annual molt. Young birds that recently left their nest are also busy growing more “adult-like” feathers to replace their less efficient juvenile plumage.
If you want to have a blast watching your feeders, while also doing your birds a big favor…be sure to keep your feeders well stocked with the high-fat and high-protein foods that will keep them healthy and looking sharp for the coming year!