What is Molting?
Is your bird losing its feathers? It may be molting. Understanding molting is important. 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 at your convenience, its molt will be unusual. Modern windows filter out light spectrums 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.
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 blood loss. Plus, a bird sheds feathers symmetrically and a few at a time so as to not disturb flight. In other words, the same feather on the right side of the body is lost on the left side of the body in order for a bird to maintain its balance and flight.
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. 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. Keep in mind that a molt takes place over a few weeks or longer. The small, downy feathers that are used for insulation tend to be shed year round.
Why do birds molt?
Feathers are a bird’s prized possession. When older feathers wear out, a bird needs healthy, renewed feathers for both flight and insulation purposes. Feathers are architectural in nature. From the architecture of individual feathers to the way each feather works in conjunction with those surrounding it together to procure flight and insulation.
Feathers are almost pure protein so molting is incredibly stressful on the body. You may not understand depleting your body of essential proteins and nutrients unless you run 26 mile marathons. But a bird’s body is built around flying 50 miles a day to its food source and back to its nest. Your bird needs to be in tip top shape each and every day, just like a marathon runner. Or even more, because it can’t store nutrients like mammals do.
During a molt, your bird must replace about 25% of its protein. New feather growth greatly taxes a bird’s system, especially if it doesn’t receive adequate protein, vitamins and minerals during feather regeneration. Birds don’t store vitamins and minerals like mammals, so they seek out the nutrients they need daily in the wild. You guessed it. Molting coincides with new plants sprouting. Wild birds seek out these nutrient rich “baby” tropical plants to supplement new feather growth. If a bird doesn’t receive appropriate nutritional intake, its feathers will suffer greatly. And, without healthy feathers, a wild bird will be lunch. Literally.
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
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 transparent shade of purple as 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 doesn’t 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. You’ll want to make sure to keep some styptic gel on hand just in case. Wing 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 to insure the bleeding has indeed stopped. If it 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?
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.
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.
Consider offering your bird molting supplements such as Featheriffic, Nekton or Feather Fast.
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.