BIRD WATCHING: Where are the birds?

Marie Oakley

I find myself looking out my window at the bird feeders I have placed in my yard.

To the right of my porch I have a suet cage filled with a no melt insect delight cake dangling from a double sided adjustable pole. The other side hangs a spiral peanut feeder filled with fresh peanuts.

To the left sits a Rubicon Fly thru feeder filled with a blend called Birds Gone Wild, offering a great source of protein.

My bird bath sits filled with cool fresh water. A water wiggler sending a rippling invitation to anyone who may stop by for a quick drink or a refreshing dip. The only thing I find missing is THE BIRDS.

The activity at my feeders have slowed dramatically in the last two weeks, with what once was a bustling rush and dash to get a turn at their favorite treat, has now turned into a vacant lot, with only the occasional titmouse who comes early morning to grab a bit and of course the doves who gather under the feeders for any scraps they can find. I’m seeing bluebirds in the backyard flying through my apple trees, and occasionally I'm seeing goldfinches pop their heads up behind the fence line but I haven't seen much movement at the feeders.

It wasn’t long ago my mother-in-law called telling me she had spotted a bird she had never seen before and like many others wanted help in identifying it. I start out as always with the basic questions. This bird she tells me is the size of a robin, had a black head, a bill like a cardinal, and a tail like a blue jay. The wings were a spotty red.

Now me being the avid birder that I am, sat scratching my head as she ruled out my possible guesses, so I referred to my "Stokes Field Guide to Birds". I flipped through the pages trying to find anything that resembled what she was seeing to no avail. A day or so later a customer of mine came in with a picture of a bird that she had spotted also and was unable to identify, come to find out this mysterious bird was a cardinal that was molting. Not a feather on its head, and its wing feathers were very patchy.

Molting can be a dangerous period for birds if there are not enough resources for them to molt properly. Flying may be difficult if not impossible while molting, which makes birds more susceptible to predators. Thus, explaining the lack of birds at feeders right now.

Molting is the process of a bird shedding old, worn feathers to replace them with fresh plumage. A molt may be partial and replace just some of a bird's feathers or complete when all the feathers are replaced at once. Some birds molt only once per year, while others may molt several times.

Molt keeps birds in top flying condition by replacing feathers that have become worn or damaged with completely new feathers. As a result, timing is important—and birds typically time their molts to avoid other periods of high energy demands, such as nesting or migration.

Molt timing can be more complicated for larger birds, because growing larger feathers means that their molt process takes longer than it does for smaller birds. This is one reason why some birds undergo partial molts.

There are generally three types of molts that occur:

• Molting of Juvenile to Adult Birds. According to The Spruce, young birds have the so called “subadult plumage” that need to be shed as the bird reaches maturity. It’s during this “juvenile” molting that birds get their adult coloring.

• Breeding to Non-Breeding molting. Many birds that molt after breeding will change their feathers into more camouflaged colors for protection. Non-breeding plumage can also include more feathers for better insulation during the winter months.

• Non-Breeding to Breeding molting. In preparation for the breeding season, this type of molting often results in brighter and more colored feathers which help with attracting sexual partners.

The most common bird you normally pay attention to during molting time is the American goldfinch. When breeding to non-breeding molt occurs the male goldfinch will lose their black cap and bright yellow body to be replaced with a pale grayish or brownish body, its brightest yellow being on the throat. Even the beak turns from a pale pink-orange to a dark gray bill.

This molting process normally takes from two to five weeks for the songbirds in our area, so hang in there, our feathered friends will soon be back enjoying the luxuries of life at your feeders.

Happy bird watching!

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