|A Northern mockingbird in molt. Photo by J.J. Meyer
Here's my latest column, scheduled to run on Saturday in The Orange County Register, Los Angeles Daily News, Long Beach Press-Telegram, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Pasadena Star-News, The Daily Breeze, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and Riverside Press-Enterprise.
As we head toward the end of summer, many people may wonder where all the birds have gone.
Experts say the birds haven’t gone anywhere; they’re just in hiding. August is the peak molting time for songbirds. It’s the period when they shed worn and ragged feathers and grow beautiful new plumage.
“During the molt, birds suddenly get scarce,” said Tim Stanley, author of the recently published book, “California Birds: A Photographic Journey and Guide.” “They’re not necessarily gone; they’re just not vocalizing.”
Birds tend to become secretive while molting, quietly hiding in the vegetation, explained the Irvine-based author. “Even mockingbirds typically go very quiet by July.
“Birds are more vulnerable to predators during molt, because they’re not as quick to escape,” Stanley said. This is especially true when growing new flight feathers. Birds can look unkempt and bedraggled during the molting process as if they were on the losing end of a fight. Some even go bald.
“Although they’re not as pretty, you can learn a lot by observing them during this time,” he said.
For example, molting patterns can help birdwatchers determine the age of the bird. Some species acquire their adult plumage in a single year. Other species, such as bald eagles, may take up to five years to reach their full adult plumage.
Bald eagles Jackie and Shadow of Big Bear fame achieved their distinctive solid white head and tail, many years ago. Fans have been watching the raptors via a nest webcam during their recent molt. Close-up videos have shown the contrast between older frayed feathers, which had been bleached by the sun, and the shiny new ones that are darker in color.
Stanley mentioned molting in the preface of his book because of its significance, he said. The book concentrates on 356 common California species, including a section with photos that show examples of birds in molt. “Birds can look very different during this time,” he said.
How a bird molts depends not only on the species but on the climate as well, he said. Many species undergo a complete molt on or near their breeding grounds, which allows them to migrate south with a new set of feathers. Others undergo a partial molt before migrating. But birds aren’t normally in a full molt when flying long distances.
American goldfinches are one of the rare species that molt twice a year, once in early spring when males develop their bright yellow breeding feathers and again in the fall when they exchange them for their dull winter colors.
Keeping feathers in tip-top shape is important for flight. And they are also vital in attracting a mate and protecting birds from inclement weather. Feathers provide insulation and keep a bird virtually waterproof.
Molting requires a lot of energy and generally begins after the breeding season and before migration. Depending on the species, it may take weeks or months for them to complete the molting cycle.
Described as a hybrid field guide and coffee table book, the hefty 542-page, self-published volume contains more than 1,000 photos showing birds in their natural surroundings. It’s available for $29.95 plus tax and shipping on Stanley’s website at https://2timothypublishing.com.