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Feather Molting in Birds: How, Why, & When?

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plucked bird feathers

Have you ever been curious to learn more about feather molting? Well, we are here to answer all your questions on the topic.

Feather molting is a natural process and a crucial part of a bird’s life cycle. Feathers are essential appendages for birds. So, they must protect them from the environment. Besides, birds must work hard to keep their feathers clean to perform well. When they start to get worn out, or if the bird is ill, feather molting can occur. We’ll tell you everything you need to know about feather molting in this guide. Let’s jump right into it!

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What Is Feather Molting?

Feather molting occurs when birds shed their feathers to grow new ones. Molting is a common occurrence, and some bird species undergo feather molting frequently. The feather molting process can be painful for the birds involved. Many birds will seek out places to rest or hide during the process to cope. It gives them a chance to regroup and gather their strength.

While feathers are crucial for warmth and insulation, shedding them isn’t a sign that something is wrong with your bird. Molting is a natural part of life for many birds. Unless you see it happening often or unusually fast, it’s nothing to worry about.

tanager bird perching on tree
Image Credit: marvinbla, Pixabay

How Do Birds Molt?

All birds molt. Some molt several times a year; others only molt once a year. The timing of the molt varies between bird species. Some birds molt right after breeding during the summer months, and others wait until fall to begin replacing their feathers. Migrating birds typically molt while on their wintering grounds. A few species don’t start molting until spring migration has started.

If you see a bird with missing or ratty-looking feathers, it’s likely in the middle of molting its feathers. Most species replace each feather individually over weeks or even months. Usually, the process starts from the head and moves towards the tail. It can also start from the center of its body outward to the wingtips and tail feathers.

Molting comes in two forms: complete and incomplete. The latter happens only when the bird replaces a few feathers, such as replacing the flight feathers on one wing. A complete feather molt occurs once every year or two and replaces all the feathers. Feather molting requires a great deal of energy. So, it often occurs in a season when food is plentiful and when losing feathers will not affect survival.

Why Do Birds Molt?

There are several reasons why birds molt. It could be because of changes in the season, age, or even a need for camouflage. Feather molting keeps birds warm in the winter and cool in the summer. During the fall, birds replace their bright summer plumage with dull colors to help them blend in with their surroundings.

When young birds hatch out of their eggs, they’re covered in downy feathers that keep them warm until they can fly on their own. When birds learn to fly, their downy feathers are replaced with stronger adult ones. This way, they can survive on their own.

Molting is also a way for birds to repair any damage to their feathers. The damage may have occurred over time or during migration. For example, if a bird loses some of its tail feathers during migration, it’ll take until spring before those feathers are replaced.

Birds Molt
Image Credit By: Jaclyn Vernace, Shutterstock,

When Do Birds Molt?

Molting usually happens once or twice a year. Many factors influence when a bird molts. Some birds molt when they need to replace damaged feathers from winter or summer. Others replace all their feathers when they need better protection from predators or are trying to attract a mate.

Most birds molt during a period when they’re not breeding or migrating. It’s because molting requires energy. If birds are busy raising chicks or migrating long distances, they might not have enough energy to replace their feathers. Younger birds molt before older birds. Their feathers are not as durable as adult feathers and need to be replaced sooner.

hummingbird divider How Do You Know Your Bird is Molting?


If you want to know if a bird is molting, there are several signs to look out for. These signs are easy to identify.

1. Loss of Appetite

Most birds will not eat much until their new feathers are in and they can fly again. Besides, most birds do not want to waste any energy on digestion during this process.

2. Feather Loss

The old feathers begin loosening and shedding while the new ones grow in. It can make some birds look scraggly and unkempt, but this is normal.

3. Skin Irritation

Skin irritation is caused by the new feathers pushing out of their follicles. It may cause your bird to scratch more than usual or preen excessively. Birds can also develop red or scaly patches on their skin where the old feathers were located. Don’t worry about this if your bird is healthy. The irritation goes away after a day or two once the feather emerges from the follicle.


4. Looking Tired and Drowsy

At the early stages of molting, birds may appear sleepier than normal and be less active. This is because they need more rest for the body to generate the energy needed for the molting process.

5. Aggressive Behavior

Molting birds can be aggressive due to general discomfort and stress. They can also be territorial and are more likely to bite people or other pets at this time.

Stages of Feather Molting

Juvenile to Adult

The first molt usually occurs when a bird has reached its adult size. This molting usually takes place within the first year of life, but it may be delayed until the following year. The number of feathers lost varies with species and age.

Non-Breeding to Breeding

Many species of birds molt the feathers on their head, neck, and back in the fall. They shed some of these feathers to get ready for breeding.

At this time, birds will molt any damaged feathers. They will also replace dull-looking feathers with colorful ones when preparing for the mating season. It helps them become more attractive to the opposite sex.

Breeding to Non-Breeding

At this time, birds will molt their colorful feathers. They’ll replace their once vibrant feathers with dull ones that offer better protection from predators. This process takes place after the breeding season. Also, it’s less extensive than a complete molt.

General Feather Replacement

Birds molt their feathers for several reasons. One is to replace worn, damaged, or missing feathers. Another reason is to replace feathers that are not appropriate for the season. General feather replacement occurs several times throughout a bird’s life.hummingbird divider

Do All Birds Experience Feather Molting?


Not all birds go through the same type of molting process. Also, not all birds molt at the same time of the year. Some birds may molt only once a year, while others may molt twice or more in a year.

How Can You Help Your Bird When It’s Molting?

Do you have a domesticated bird that’s molting? You may feel a little helpless because there’s nothing more you can do. But here are a few things you can do to help.

Give Birds Supplements

When your bird is molting, its body needs more nutrients than ever. Make sure you provide them with plenty of extra protein so that the new feathers can grow quickly. You can also feed them more protein-rich foods, such as seeds and nuts.

Spray Your Bird’s Feathers With Water

You can spray your feathered friends using a spray bottle. Doing this will soften their feathers for easy shedding of old feather follicles. Make sure that you provide fresh water for your bird daily. Also, let them enjoy a bath once a week to keep their feathers healthy and clean.

Give Them Toys

You can keep your molting pet entertained by giving them toys to keep their mind off the discomfort. Molting can be stressful for birds, so they might need more attention than usual. Extra toys and perches can help keep them occupied.

Dangers of Feather Molting

Molting is a natural process that all birds go through. But during the feather molting process, the bird is more vulnerable to predators. Also, it will be less adept at flying and may not be able to fly at all. This increased vulnerability is why birds prefer to molt in a safe place, such as their nest or a nesting box.

A molting bird is also more susceptible to illness and parasites because of their weakened immune system. Take your bird to the vet immediately if you suspect illness.hummingbird divider

In Conclusion

Feathers are a bird’s primary means of insulation and are essential for survival. When a bird molts, it’s not a sign that something is wrong. Rather, it means that their bodies are doing what they’re supposed to. A new layer of feathers is about to emerge, and their life can continue with renewed vigor. We hope this article has been helpful to you if you’re an avid bird watcher and have been curious about how, why, and when feather molting occurs.

Featured Image Credit: anaterate, Pixabay

About the Author Robert Sparks

Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.