Molting is a natural physiological and cyclical phase in all bird species. Birds, which are said to be molting, begin to gradually shed their old and torn feathers and replace them with a set of new ones without appearing bald during the process.
However, some types of pet birds such as the lady Gouldian finch and the parrot finch usually shed feathers heavily, leaving bald spots in some areas of the body. Additionally and exceptionally, penguins lose all of their feathers all at once when they molt.
How do I know my pet bird is molting?
Bird keepers should notice the following changes:
- The bird is less energetic, active, and noisy than usual and stops singing if he does.
- The bird preens and cleans his feathers more than usual.
- The presence of feathers in the cage or aviary.
- The appearance of pin feathers on the bird’s body such as the head area.
When does my pet bird start molting?
All birds molt without exception whether domesticated or wild, but the timing, duration, and frequency of molt depend on the type and age of the bird (juvenile or adult).
The majority of birds shed their feathers once a year after the breeding season ends such as canaries, goldfinches, and Gouldian finches. Few birds, however, can breed and molt simultaneously such as the zebra finch and budgie, and yet others start molting towards the end of the breeding cycle before or while caring for their last brood.
The variation in the frequency of molt is further evident in the American goldfinch, which replaces its feathers twice a year, in the spring, and at the end of the breeding season in the fall. Furthermore, some bird species may take up to two years to complete a full molt such as the African grey juvenile parrot.
On the other hand, it appears that budgies in the wild take up to 8 months to complete the molting cycle, and therefore it appears normal for this lengthy molt to coincide with the reproductive period. Similarly, adult zebra finches in the wild shed feathers throughout the year, and molting overlaps with the reproductive period as well.
Both zebra finches and budgies are opportunistic breeders in their habitat in the wild. This means they breed as long as breeding conditions, mainly food supplies, are maintained. The relationship between breeding and molting in these species is a complex matter, and it changes based on the individual bird and the environment in which he lives. This also means that some budgies and zebra finches will molt while breeding and others won’t. But they may shift from (molt only status) to (breed and molt status) at any given time.
Juvenile canaries experience their first molt at the age of 8 weeks, and it lasts from 4 to 6 weeks. The juvenile replaces all feathers except the wings and tail. Adult canaries replace all feathers within a period of 6 to 8 weeks.
If you raise adult canaries in a temperate climate, they should start their molt in July or August or September only if you let them sleep at dusk and wake up at dawn. The exact time of molting depends on the individual bird, and the geographical location, and the environment in which the bird lives.
Photoperiod or daylight length mainly triggers the molting process in canaries and many other birds that live in temperate climates. For more details, read canary molt. This may also apply to tropical species although daylight doesn’t vary or change much in the tropics. But it seems that food resources are a more determining factor in molt initiation in tropical species.
Molting is an exhausting and stressful period for your pet bird. You should neither expect your songbird to be energetic nor should expect him to sing during molting. But you can expect your songbird to gradually sing again afterward.
Poorly maintained and fed birds will take longer to complete their molt and won’t succeed to develop high-quality feathers, and worse yet may die in the process or shortly afterward.
What to do when my pet bird molts?
There are important steps that you should take:
- Adjust diet (discussed in the next section)
- Place the bird in a quiet and stress-free environment
- Provide daily bath if possible
- Expose the bird to sunlight
What to feed my bird during molt?
Birds need more minerals, vitamins, fats, and proteins during this sensitive period. A proper diet ensures that molting is completed within normal parameters and with high-quality feathers. On the contrary, restricting bird food to seeds only, and failure to provide a diet rich in proteins, vitamins, and minerals leads to problems with feather growth and quality.
If feathers appear brittle and pale in color, this means that the current diet isn’t good enough, and it must be modified. A poor diet can also delay the completion of molt. For example, iodine deficiency may cause abnormal feather growth while lack of protein could make the bird get “stuck in molt”. Protein is an essential nutrient as feathers consist of almost 90% protein.
You can feed your bird depending on his type a wide variety of safe and nutritious fruit and vegetables such as bell peppers, hot peppers, sweet potatoes, carrot, apples, and dark leafy vegetables. Germinated seeds are a rich source of vitamins and minerals and a great choice for birds which mainly feed on seeds such as canaries. A great source of protein is hard-boiled eggs or commercial egg food.
If you cannot maintain a naturally selected diet during molting, you should invest in commercial supplements.
- Robert G. Black (1980), Problems with Finches, Copple House Print, page 41
- Maria A. Echeverry-Galvis, Michaela Hau (2012), Molt–breeding overlap alters molt dynamics and behavior in zebra finches, Taeniopygia guttata castanotis, Journal of Experimental Biology, retrieved July 2020 from https://jeb.biologists.org/content/215/11/1957
- Penguins and Molt, National Aviary, retrieved July 2020 from https://www.aviary.org/penguins-learn-about-molt
- Steve N. G. Howell (2010), Peterson Reference Guide to Molt in North American Birds, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, page 166
- Avian molt (2018), birdbud.com