Have you noticed that your bird’s cage is accumulating lots of little feathers? Sounds like it must be moulting time! Your birds feather moulting is a crucial and stressful part of a birds life but there are thing that you can do to make it easier on your feathered friends.
Birds are fascinating creatures and are structured very differently to other modern day creatures. Their bodies are covered in a beautiful plumage of feathers and most species are capable of flight thanks to specially shaped, lightweight feathers.
A birds feathers serve a number of purposes including;
- Insulating the bird’s body and helping to regulate its body temperature.
- Aerodynamic shaping allowing flight.
- Protecting the bird’s skin from water.
- The colours and patterns can be used to attract a mate.
- As a defence mechanism against predators, helping a bird to potentially look larger and more threatening than they actually are.
With their feathers being their outer layer, it is those feathers that take on the wear and tear of daily birdy life. Daily activities such as rubbing against tree branches, preening, flying, and dust bathing all subject feathers to friction that causes wear, and the keratin to weaken as the feathers age.
As the feathers become more damaged, the feather’s aerodynamic and insulating properties are compromised, and the feather must be shed so a new one can take its place. The old worn feathers are shed in a process known as moulting. Moulting is a gradual process in which the feathers slowly fall out and are replaced.
A moult may be partial, where just a few feathers are replaced or it may be a complete moult where all of the feathers are replaced at once. Moulting is a natural process and serves two main purposes.
- It makes the feathers look healthy and vibrant which is more appealing to potential mates.
- Allows birds to shed old frayed and tattered feathers and replace them with new ones for flight.
In a moulting cycle the bird should not look bald, but you will notice a large amount of feathers shed from the body, wings and tail. If the bird does have patches of bare skin, this is more likely a sign of a health issue and you should consult an avian vet.
With pet birds you will notice two main type of moulting;
Juvenile to Adult: Young birds have down feathers or sub-adult plumage that must be shed as the birds reach maturity and develop their adult colouration. A baby budgie normally goes through its first moult at 10-12 weeks of age and it last about 2-3 weeks. In this moult the budgie develops its adult head cap and loses the baby bar pattern.
General Feather Replacement: General replacement of worn feathers is an essential moult that birds must undergo to maintain healthy plumage. The timing and duration of moulting varies depending on the species of bird. Moulting for an adult budgie can occur once or twice a year, but some even moult monthly and this moult can last anywhere between one and ten weeks.
What happens during your bird feather moulting?
When preening a bird cleans it feathers and makes sure that each and every barb is laying correctly. Worn, tattered feathers make it difficult to align the barbs and therefore it is time for those feathers to be replaced. In general, a birds feathers are moulted in a symmetrical pattern across the wings, tail, and body so it retains its balance for flight.
As feathers age, the quills loosen in their shafts and it is not until they are ready to fall out that new feathers begin to grow. While the new feathers are growing, there are visible gaps in a bird’s plumage, particularly in the wings and tail, where shorter feathers are more noticeable. The bird will preen its feathers so that nearby feathers on the body overlap the bare space as to not expose skin. During the moult the bird may look scruffy and its markings will be indistinct until the moult is complete.
The undeveloped, newly emerging feathers are known as pin feathers. At this stage these little blood filled, keratin quills are considered to be a living tissue. The blood supply transports essential nutrients that are required for feather growth and development. Once a feather is fully developed it no longer has a blood supply and is considered to be non-living and hence can’t be repaired once damaged.
A birds moulting is triggered by UVA and UVB lights that exist in natural sunlight. This helps them to synchronise moulting pre breeding or post fledging their young. Pet birds that aren’t exposed to natural sunlight, e.g. those that live indoors, may moult at odd times throughout the year.
How does the moulting process affect the bird?
Moulting is a stressful time for birds. They will most likely be,
- Less active
- More sleepy
- Eat more food
- Moody/aggressive because of the discomfort of the pin feathers
- Increased preening
- Increased squawking
- More prone to illness
Help your bird through the moulting cycle
Moulting can be a taxing time for birds but there are thing that you can do to make it more comfortable for them.
Healthy diet – The moulting process requires a tremendous amount of energy and during a moult, your bird must replace about 25% of its protein. Unlike mammals, birds do not store vitamins, so seek out nutrients as they need them. It’s vital to ensure that your birds have a healthy, balanced diet consisting of their regular bird feed of seeds or pellets, complimented with plenty of fruits and vegetables. Vegetables such as sweet potatoes and carrots are rich in vitamins A, while kale, parsley and broccoli are high in calcium. Cooked eggs can also be served up for added protein. These nutrients are all vital for healthy feather production and vitamin supplements are also available if your bird is not fond of fruits and vegetables.
Time to rest – During the moult, your bird will need plenty of rest so make sure they have a quiet, dark place to rest for part of the day that is away from the household hustle and bustle.
Sooth the discomfort – As the pin feathers develop and grow, they can cause itching and discomfort as they come through. Misting with water or providing a bowl or water for bathing can help to soothe some of symptoms of moulting.
Provide distractions – Keep your birds busy during moulting by providing plenty of toys to play with. The toys will form the perfect distraction from the discomfort that they are going though.
When moulting isn’t normal
Sometimes, what may initially appear to be moulting is in fact something more serious. French moult is one such condition that affects the feathers of budgies and a few other pet bird species. It is caused by the avian polyomavirus and may be contagious. Some experts claim that transmission takes place in the nest; where the virus is transmitted from the parents to the eggs. Thus, it would not be a good idea to knowingly let budgies who suffer from the French moult have chicks.
The condition causes the long wing and tail feathers to fall out, while the small feathers that cover the body are unaffected, unless it is an extreme case of French moult. French moult has the potential to cause birds to be unable to fly for the rest of their lives as the feathers either don’t grow back or grow back abnormally.
There is no known cure for French moult, but affected birds whose feathers are brittle and weak can be supported by special food supplements and silica which aid feather growth.
Moulting is a perfectly normal part of a birds life, but you can make it easier. Keeping your eyes open to your birds moult and supporting your pets with some of the steps above will make your birds life that much easier.