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August 27, 2011 / Leslie

Weekend Birding: What Is That Ugly Bird?

By the end of August you may notice many of the birds are looking a bit shabby. Bald patches and scruffy looking feathers and even a few pieces of down fluff poking out. There’s nothing wrong with your birds. It’s molting season. After a busy summer of nesting and raising young a bird’s feathers get a bit tattered and worn. Migratory birds have had the added wear and tear of a long journey to their nesting grounds.

Most robins don’t look as bad as this poor guy does. He seemed fine other than being a bit naked. He had a beak full of worms and was on his way home to feed the youngsters. It’s possible this was a first year bird. Their feathers tend to wear out faster than an older robin. This is because their adult plumage grew in quickly after the juvenile plumage molted the prior year.

This sparrow is growing his new feathers for winter. Healthy, clean feathers keep a bird warm and water resistant. The little goldfinches, so bright and beautiful in the summer, are beginning to turn a brownish color.

Poor Mrs. Cardinal wasn't looking too good this day. Her usually perky crown feathers had fallen out, her body feathers are scruffy and her tail looks shredded. This photo is from last year. She looked even worse before her new feathers grew back, but within a few weeks she was looking beautiful again.

Interesting Facts:

  • Why do birds molt? Because feathers wear out and cannot heal when damaged and need to be replaced.
  • Feathers are not alive, they are similar to hair or nails in humans.
  • How often a bird will molt depends on the species but most molt once a year. Some species will molt twice a year, an example is the Goldfinch, and others will do a partial molt before breeding season.
  • When do birds molt? Growing new feathers requires a lot of energy so molting takes place during less stressful times such as after nesting is complete or before migration.
  • Usually birds lose only a few feathers at a time and the molting is inconspicuous. Sometimes it’s not a neat, orderly process as you can see from these photos.


    For more bird photos check out my previous Weekend Birding posts.

    I link up my bird photos on Saturday Snapshot hosted by Alyce at At Home With Books. Visit her blog to see more great photos or add your own.



Leave a Comment
  1. carol / Aug 27 2011 2:54 am

    Definately not their best look, but will be beautiful again by winter



  2. mostraum / Aug 27 2011 3:09 am

    Interesting pictures and commentary. I’m a sucker for facts 🙂


  3. Amy / Aug 27 2011 6:55 am

    Fascinating post, thank you! I’m so relieved to know the cute little guy in the top photo is carrying worms in his beak and he isn’t sick or anything, just molting…very intriguing! It’s so interesting how mother nature works…birds going through a scruffy, ugly period to ready them for winter. Amazing!


    • Leslie / Aug 27 2011 8:41 am

      Most birds never look that bad. He was probably a young bird – their first set of adult feathers are not as durable as an older bird. Or he could have had another problem I’m unaware of, but he was flying around just fine.


  4. laurelrainsnow / Aug 27 2011 7:21 am

    I’ve never seen the molting process. You’ve spotlighted it so well! Thanks for sharing.



    • Leslie / Aug 27 2011 8:49 am

      Most birds molt slowly, a few feathers at a time, so you wouldn’t notice it. That poor little robin I saw looked stressed out… perhaps from feeding his big family!


  5. TheBookGirl / Aug 27 2011 8:09 am

    Do non-migratory birds molt also?
    This post was so informative Leslie, you have a real knack for communicating facts in an interesting way that a layperson can understand 🙂


    • Leslie / Aug 27 2011 8:51 am

      Yes, even the non-migratory birds molt.


  6. BermudaOnion / Aug 27 2011 8:35 am

    Poor little Robin. No wonder I’m finding feathers in my yard.


    • Leslie / Aug 27 2011 8:53 am

      I’m seeing a lot of them now. The doves are losing their large feathers.


  7. irene / Aug 27 2011 9:01 am

    Wonderful information, thanks.


  8. Leeswammes / Aug 27 2011 9:03 am

    Very interesting pictures and information. I’ve never really thought about birds molting. I will keep an eye out for them.


    • Leslie / Aug 27 2011 10:20 am

      Most of them do it discretely and unless you look close with field glasses you won’t notice it.


  9. Sheila (Book Journey) / Aug 27 2011 10:06 am

    What a great post – I had no idea about all of this… I thought that was just a bird who was either having a bad feather day or stayed up way too late partying… 🙂


    • Leslie / Aug 27 2011 10:21 am

      Mrs. Cardinal does look a little hungover!


  10. Diane@BibliophileBytheSea / Aug 27 2011 10:28 am

    That poor scruffy robin. Thanks for the education on molting Leslie.


  11. Lisa / Aug 27 2011 10:52 am

    Poor scruffy birds! My theory: it’s after mating season, so they don’t have to make an effort anymore – they just let themselves go. Just like a couple of guys I dated. 🙂

    My Snapshot is here.


    • Leslie / Aug 27 2011 11:18 am

      That’s too funny! But it’s true that in many species the males do a partial molt in the spring to get their pretty breeding plumage. They also stop singing after mating season ends.


  12. dyane / Aug 27 2011 11:18 am

    great post and photos ….birds molt ….more interesting info thanks for sharing that.


  13. Paulita / Aug 27 2011 5:53 pm

    I loved learning about the scruffy birds. Taking pictures of them was probably more fun than taking pictures of the carefully coiffed ones.


  14. Alyce (At Home With Books) / Aug 27 2011 6:29 pm

    This was such an informative post. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a scruffy looking robin before. I’m sure I would have thought something was wrong with him had I seen him in person. 🙂


  15. Janet Ruth / Aug 27 2011 7:32 pm

    Wow, great shots, and I feel sorry for the shabby little robin. I have never seen one quite like this either.


  16. Bev@My Reader's Block / Aug 27 2011 8:52 pm

    Poor birds! Looks like they’re having a “bad hair day.” Lol. I love the interesting shots you get. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a molting bird before.

    here’s mine:


  17. Mary / Aug 27 2011 8:53 pm

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bird look as sad as the first one. I love all the worms in his beak though 🙂 Great post, Leslie!


  18. Bere @ Sueños en la Luna / Aug 27 2011 9:33 pm

    These pictures are really incredible. Great shots. I have never ever seen a birdy like that. Fantastic post, I’ve learned something new today. Thank you! =]


  19. Suko / Aug 28 2011 12:02 am

    Great post! These poor birds could use a trip to the Fine Feather Salon.


  20. storygal / Aug 28 2011 6:36 am

    Interesting to know that feathers are like fingernails and wear out.

    Liked the fine feather salon. Can just picture it.


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