When we look at birds, we are fascinated by the unique structure and appearance of their feathers. They set birds apart from all other life forms on the planet. Feathers enable most birds to achieve a feat long envied by humans…flight. Birds on the wing awaken a curiosity in man. They are generally the largest animals one will see in the air. People want to know the name of a bird they see flying by, and want to know more about it. The method and style of bird flight can aid an observer who attempts to determine which of the world’s 10,000 bird species he or she is studying. Body shape and bird sounds often tell us a lot about the birds we encounter. But most often, we rely on the unique colors, patterns, and shapes of the feathers, the plumage, to identify the bird we are seeing.
To birds, feathers are survival. They are lightweight and strong to support the mechanics of flight. Feathers are superb insulators against the elements, and provide additional buoyancy for birds spending time on the water. For most birds, feathers provide a coloration and a texture similar to their surroundings, enabling them to hide from predators or to stalk prey. In the case of some species, extravagant showy plumage is acquired, at least during the breeding season, and often only by males, as a way to attract a mate, intimidate rivals, defend a territory, or lure an intruder away from a nest site. Because they become worn and damaged, all feathers are periodically molted and replaced by fresh plumage.
The feathers worn by a young bird leaving the nest are called the juvenile plumage. Typically, this is followed by a molt into a basic (non-breeding) plumage. The oft times extravagant breeding feathers are the result of a molt into an alternate (breeding) plumage.
While making field observations, the species, subspecies, gender, age, and other vital statistics of a bird can often by discerned easily by noting the plumage. In the case of some other birds, diligence, experience, research, and an exceptionally good look and/or a photograph may be required to interpret these particulars. In still other instances, a trained expert with a specimen in the hand is the only method of learning the bird’s identity and background.
The age at which birds acquire adult breeding and non-breeding plumages varies by species. Many juvenile birds resemble adults in basic (non-breeding) plumage as soon as they leave the nest. For these birds, there is little difference between their juvenile plumage and the appearance of the feathers which follow the molt into their first basic (non-breeding) plumage. Bird species which sexually mature within their first year may acquire their first basic (non-breeding) plumage before arrival of their first winter, followed by an alternate (breeding) plumage by their first spring. This is particularly true for smaller short-lived birds. Other species, normally larger long-lived ones, may experience a sequence of molts through multiple basic (non-breeding) plumages over a period of years prior to resembling an adult. Some of these species, such as eagles, retain their juvenile plumage for as long as a year before extensive molting into a first basic (non-breeding) plumage begins. Still others, including many gulls, attain a first-winter (formative) plumage prior to molting into their first basic (non-breeding) set of feathers. Sexual maturity and initiation of an annual molt to alternate (breeding) plumage, if there is one, may take as long as three to five years for these bigger birds.
For nearly all species of birds, the molts which produce basic (non-breeding) plumage occur on at least an annual basis and include a total replacement of feathers. This process renews worn and missing plumes including the flight feathers of the wings and tail. Any molt to alternate (breeding) plumage often excludes the replacement of the feathers of the wings and tail. There are many exceptions to these generalities.
The Juvenile and non-breeding (basic) plumages of late-summer may seem drab and confusing, but learning them is a worthwhile endeavor. Consider that most of the birds coming south during the migration will be adorned in this fashion. The birds of North America are in their greatest numerical mass of the year right now, and nearly all are females, juveniles, other non-adults, or molting males. There are few males in breeding plumage among the autumn waves of migrants. In the coming months, there will be an abundance of opportunities to enjoy these marvels on wings, so getting to know the birds in non-breeding feathers is time well spent. Make haste and get ready. For our feathered friends, it’s autumn and they’re on their way south.
Dunne, Pete. 2006. Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York.
Hayman, Peter; John Marchant, and Tony Prater. 1986. Shorebirds, An Identification Guide to the Waders of the World. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York.
Kauman, Kenn. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York.
McCullough, Mark A. 1989. Molting Sequence and Aging Of Bald Eagles. The Wilson Bulletin. 101:1-10.