Understanding Molting in Birds: Tips for Beautiful Feathers

shutterstock 114447955 300x211 Understanding Molting in Birds: Tips for Beautiful Feathers

Understanding the molting process will help you care for your bird.

What is Molting?

Is your bird losing its feathers?  It may be molting.  Understanding molting is an important part of pet bird care. After all, your birds feathers are its greatest possession.

Pet birds molt at least once, but possibly twice a year; usually right after breeding season.  Different species molt at different times based on the season, breeding season, migrations and nutritional needs. The length of time it takes to complete a molt is variable from species to species, too. And then, our pet birds, that aren’t exposed to natural sunlight may molt at odd times.

Molting is the process of shedding old and tattered feathers for new ones.  Birds have an internal clock in their brains that is set by natural sunlight!  Molting is actually triggered by UVA and UVB lights existing in natural daylight or present high quality artificial full-spectrum bird lights. If your bird only sees light from modern windows or is outside only occasionally, its molt will be unusual. Modern windows filter out UVA & UVB light spectrum to conserve energy and prevent your furniture from fading.  Realistically, the majority of U.S. based households can’t replicate the natural sunlight needs of a tropical parrot without a full-spectrum light set up.

Feathers are generally shed after breeding season to take a bird through harsh weather before the next breeding season. Molts occur over a period of a few weeks. Against popular thought, birds don’t get bald patches with a molt.  Bald patches leave an individual feather vulnerable to breakage.   Mature feathers surround baby pin feathers to protect each feather from damage and blood loss. For flight and insulation purposes, a bird sheds its feathers symmetrically and only a few at a time.   In other words, the same feather on the right side of the body is lost on the left side of the body.

How will I know if my bird is molting?

Generally, you’ll see intact feathers lying on the bottom of the cage.  By intact, we mean a feather containing the entire shaft. You can see the actual tip of the feather.  If the shaft is chewed up or splintered, it may indicate that your bird is engaging in feather destructive behavior rather than molting.

What you, as a bird parent, will notice is several intact, shed feathers on the floor or bottom of the cage over the course of several weeks, several of which look very similar.  The small, downy feathers that are used for insulation tend to be shed year round.  Keep in mind that a molt takes place over a few weeks or longer and the process is rather taxing on your bird. Healthy feather regrowth requires a stable source of protein, calcium other other nutrients and minimal environmental stressors.

Why do birds molt?  

Feathers are a bird’s prized possession. You’ve probably observed your bird preening and cleaning its feathers each day.  Your bird is making sure that each and every barb on each feather is clean and laying correctly.  What a job! Imagine having to keep each feather just right to stay warm and fly.

But, when a feather becomes worn, tattered or broken over the course of the year, it becomes difficult to align all of the remaining barbs.  Molting is the process of replacing worn feathers with new ones.

Stressful? Yeah!

Feathers are almost pure protein so growing new ones is incredibly stressful on the body. Your bird will need excellent nutrition to grow new healthy feathers.

During a molt, your bird must replace about 25% of its protein.  If your bird gets too stressed out or doesn’t receive adequate nutrition, the new feather may contain stress bars or weak points.  These feathers are prone to breakage.

Birds don’t store vitamins and minerals like mammals, so they seek out the nutrients they need each day.  You guessed it.  Molting coincides with new plants sprouting.  Wild birds seek out these nutrient rich “baby” tropical plants to supplement new feather growth.  You can help you pet bird by providing a very well balanced diet, such as Harrison’s Bird Food, supplementing it with Featheriffic and insuring that your bird gets protein and nutrient rich vegetables and low sugar fruits.  Fresh sprouts are an excellent supplement for all birds, but especially during a mold.

Feathers are made from 90% Keratin, a protein with an amino acid foundation. As a captive parrot parent, you must anticipate molting and offer your bird a well-balanced diet at all times, but especially so during a molt.  If your bird doesn’t receive appropriate nutritional intake, it will feel weak, ill and grumpy during a molt and new feather growth will be inferior.  Curly, sparse and unhealthy feathers will cause your bird to chill but worse, the nutritional deprivation will slowly kill your bird.  Proper nutritional and environmental support during a molt is a big thing.

New Pin Feathers

Pin Feathers 200x300 Understanding Molting in Birds: Tips for Beautiful Feathers

by Guilherme Labarrere

Undeveloped or baby feathers are called “pin feathers.” At this stage, feathers are actually living tissue each with their own blood source. Pin feathers look like little quills that are a transparent shade of purple since they are filled with blood.  The blood transports essential nutrients for optimum feather growth.

These fragile pin feathers can bleed profusely if they get damaged, and the blood loss from a broken pin feather can kill a bird. That’s why nature does not make a bird molt in patches but in a calculated fashion.  Your bird needs protective adult feathers surrounding the new feather growth.

Never the less, our caged, wing-clipped birds get their baby pin feathers caught in cage bars or break them in other way. You’ll want to make sure to keep some styptic gel on hand just in case your bird breaks a pin feather. You’ll also want to get into the habit of checking your birds surroundings both morning and evening to observe for signs of bleeding.  Newing feathers growing in around clipped feathers are most at risk for breakage.

If a growing feather gets damaged, you’ll want to stop the bleeding straightaway.  Use styptic gel, flour or cornstarch and apply pressure at the source for 1-2 minutes.  Place the bird in a hospital cage and observe for at least an hour to insure the bleeding has indeed stopped.  If the bleeding hasn’t stopped, you’ll want to transport the bird to a vet as soon as possible.  Worst case scenario, learn how to pull a blood feather.  This is incredibly painful and traumatic for a bird, but on rare occasions, it may be necessary. We strongly recommend that decision be made by an experienced avian vet.

How can I help my bird thrive during a molt?

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Misting your parrot may ease the compulsion for feather plucking

Always have a well-balanced diet available for your bird.   Your bird may eat up to 25% more than usual. Your bird will be stressed and it will require excellent nutrition to grow healthy, new, colorful feathers.  Providing a special feather growth supplement such as Featheriffic! or Nekton Bio will insure that your bird has adequate nutrition for beautiful feather growth.

Supplement with super nutritional fruits and vegetables.  Make sure to provide plenty of green and yellow – orange vegetables.

Expose your bird to natural sunlight or purchase full-spectrum lights and set them in sync with actual daylight hours.

Keep the environment warm and protect your bird from drafts as missing even a few feathers will leave your bird vulnerable to getting chilled.

Mist or bathe your bird regularly.  Consider blowing it dry to prevent chilling or offering it a heat lamp or heated perch.

Anxiety – understand that your bird, an animal of prey, will feel significantly more vulnerable during this time simply due to the stress of molting.  Offer your bird a quiet, warm and dark place to rest.  You may want to cover the cage or offer your bird a Snuggly.

Let us know your experiences with molting in the comments below.  If you enjoyed this article, please share it with your bird loving friends, and please subscribe to our newsletter for bird care tips and sales,

About Diane Burroughs

Diane Burroughs, founded BirdSupplies.com in 1998. A bird lover who is owned by African Grey's, a Moluccan, a Parrotlet and a Red-Bellied Parrot, Diane is dedicated to improving the lives of pet birds with vet-approved parrot tested supplies and expert bird care articles.

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