Secrets About Feathers
What makes birds unique? Feathers! The beautiful plumage that you see on birds allows them to fly and helps them attract a mate. But feathers do more than this for birds—they help birds keep warm and dry. When we see birds with fluffed up feathers, they are fluffing them so that layers of air become trapped between the feathers providing additional insulation much like us layering our clothing. Most birds have an oil gland, also called a preen gland, that is located just above their tail. These birds rub their bill or beak against the preen gland and then over their feathers and legs. This oil is believed to give their feathers a little bit of water-repellent as well as moisturizing their beaks and legs.

No matter how careful the birds are, their feathers wear out eventually and are replaced.  Typically birds do this once or twice a year. This process is called molting. If you have a pet bird, you’ve seen strange spikes sticking up among the other feathers; we refer to these as pin feathers. These feather shafts need to be 'broken' to allow the feathers to fully emerge. Birds do this while preening themselves and their friends. If you keep a single bird as a pet, you may want to consider 'preening' your bird’s head and neck with your finger nails to help break the itchy pin feathers.

Dark feathers are more resistant to wear than light feathers. The European Starling has pretty 'spotted' feathers following his fall molt.  These 'spotted' feathers are actually black feathers with white tips. By the end of the summer, starlings are almost completely black due to the light colored portion wearing off.  Woodpeckers, which rely on their tail feathers for bracing themselves during feeding, have sturdy dark tail feathers.

Many pet bird owners become alarmed when they see a bird at their feeders that is missing a large patch of feathers on their face.  This is not due to PBFD (Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease) as these bird owners fear, but rather due to the wild bird losing a large cluster of feathers at once during his spring or fall molt.

Feathers contain a lot of protein so it takes a lot of energy to create new feathers. Therefore, birds do this at strategic times during the year—usually in the spring or fall, when they aren’t nesting or migrating. Some birds, such as the American Goldfinch, have a complete molt and a partial molt each year.  Goldfinches have their complete molt in the fall—you’ll notice that the males lose their brilliant yellow color during this time of year.  In the spring, they molt only their body feathers while retaining their wing and tail feathers. The American Goldfinches are like other birds, such as Black-capped Chickadees and Northern Cardinals, that winter in northern climates; these birds grow additional feathers during their fall molt to help them with insulating warmth so they can survive the harsh climate.

The next time you look at a pretty bird, you’ll probably think a little differently about those beautiful feathers! Hopefully, you’ll provide a little extra food to help them survive their seasonal molts. Need a new feeder? Click here to see our exceptional selection of bird feeders.

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