Birds of a Feather-The Basics

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.

This juvenile House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) left the nest wearing plumage very similar to that of its parents.  In lieu of bright colors, the male House Wren relies upon a vigorous bubbly song and a scrappy demeanor to defend its breeding territory.  This species nests in cavities on the edges of the Riparian Woodlands of Conewago Falls.  Males may have more than one mate.  House Wrens probably migrate at night and will winter in the southern border states and further south.

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.

A mid-summer nesting species, the American Goldfinch, Spinus tristis, male (left and right) molts into a glamorous alternate plumage for the breeding season.  The adult female’s alternate plumage (top) is a subdued green-yellow and black.  Her feathers resemble the foliage around the nest and offer protection from discovery during incubation.  Juvenile plumage (bottom) is similar to that of the female, but duller with a buffy tone.  By November each of these birds will have molted into a tan-buff basic (non-breeding) plumage, the male’s with a slight yellow hue.  During their first spring, juveniles attain sexual maturity and, like the adults from the previous year, molt into alternate (breeding) plumage.  The breeding birds seen here will probably winter in the southern United States, and birds that nested to our north will arrive to remain as winter residents.  Various stages of molt can be seen simultaneously during spring and autumn migrations as populations of goldfinches from multiple latitudes intermingle as they pass through the Susquehanna River watershed.
This juvenile Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius), lacks the namesake dark markings on its white underside, thus it presently resembles an adult in basic (non-breeding) plumage.  Upon reaching sexual maturity, it will molt into a spotted alternate (breeding) plumage for the nesting season during each remaining year of its life.  Females of this species defend a territory and lay eggs in a nest located among cover near the shoreline.  A female may have as many as five mates.  Males alone incubate the eggs, usually four, for 20-24 days.  The young leave the nest upon hatching and are escorted by the male for about two to three additional weeks.  They are the only sandpiper to nest on the Susquehanna River shoreline.  Spotted Sandpipers migrate to the southern border states and further south for winter.  At Conewago Falls, they arrive in late April to nest, with birds, possibly migrants from further north, remaining until well into October.  In any plumage, you can easily recognize the Spotted Sandpiper by its habit of teetering its body at the hips to pump the tail up and down.
Bald Eagles go through a series of five molts before reaching adult plumage.  The first plumage, Juvenile, is nearly all dark brown with white linings along the forward underside of the wings.  The wing and tail feathers are a bit longer than in later plumages to aid the inexperienced birds during their clumsy first flights.  Due to the additional feather length, Juveniles look larger than older birds, but they are not as heavy as their seniors.  The bird seen here flying above Conewago Falls is probably in its second year.  This plumage, Basic I, also known as “White Belly I”, is characterized by a nearly full set of new flight feathers.  Note that some of the longer Juvenile feathers are still present, giving the wings a jagged sloppy look, particularly near the center of the trailing edge.  Third-year (Basic II) birds often have at least some white belly feathers and are sometimes known as “White Belly II” Bald Eagles.  Basic II birds typically possess a complete set of adult flight feathers, so the trailing edge of the wing has a neater and more uniform appearance.

The Bald Eagle in the two photographs above is in its first year.  This plumage, known as “Juvenile”, is characterized by dark flight feathers which appear uniformly long in length when the bird is airborne.  The eye is dark brown.  The iris of the eye will lighten in the second year (Basic I) and will become cream-colored by the third year (Basic II).  The bill, which is all dark gray when the bird is in the nest, has begun the slow progression to a yellow color that will be complete in the bird’s fifth year (Basic IV).  Third year (Basic II) birds molt to white crown and throat feathers, but have a dark set of feathers through the eye producing an “Osprey face” in most individuals.  In its fourth year (Basic III), this eagle will molt to a white tail with just a thin dark brown terminal band.  The head will become nearly all white except for a few dark spots through the eye, which will have a yellow iris.  A cleaner white head and tail will develop during the fifth year (Basic IV) and will persist through the familiar adult Bald Eagle plumages (Definitive Plumage) for the remainder of its life.

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.

Here come the confusing fall migrants.  Twelve Semipalmated Sandpipers (Calidris pusilla) and sixteen unidentified “peep” sandpipers (Calidris species) were seen feeding in Conewago Falls on August 27.  This Semipalmated Sandpiper is either an adult in worn alternate (breeding) plumage or a Juvenile.  Adults of this species molt into basic plumage on the wintering grounds.  The Semipalmated Sandpiper breeds in the high arctic tundra and winters in the West Indies and northern South America.
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SOURCES

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.

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