The Moult

The process of moulting, which is the normal loss and replacement of feathers, is affected by a number of factors. The health of the feathers is dependent upon an adequate diet and a suitable environment. Feathers are constructed mainly of keratin, a protein derived from essential amino acids with the sulphur-containing members the most significant. The importance of vitamins and minerals is deduced mainly from experimental studies in poultry and other birds such as pigeons and canaries. Vitamin A, niacin, tryptophan, pantothenic acid, folic acid and iodine are all essential for the health of the feathers; deficiencies or an excess may give rise to lesions of the skin as well as the plumage. Moulting of the different types of feathers varies depending upon age, sex, season or environment. It can be sudden, as in ducks, with most of the wing feathers being replaced in two to three weeks, during which time the bird is virtually earthbound. Alternatively it may be continuous throughout the year, with a peak in spring and early summer as in most psittacines. Passerines, including canaries, moult gradually over several months between May and December in the northern hemisphere. Most birds moult once a year, a few twice a year, and still others compromise-with primary feathers and coverts changed once, whilst the small feathers are replaced twice a year. The wing feathers in a few species are kept for two years. In most birds, nestling plumage is exchanged for the adult type at a few weeks of age. There are differences in many species between the adolescent and the sexually mature plumage. Examples are the gulls and the swans, whose young are brown or greyish and become predominantly white at maturity. There are species where the young of both sexes have female plumage--the blackbirds for example--but where the male changes at maturity.

A bird is not sick when it molts, but it is more sensitive to unfavorable conditions during this time. The moult is a natural process, during which all birds replace their feathers. The seasons and the frequency of moult depend on the life rhythm of the particular species. Most songbirds moult after the last mating period of the year; migratory birds moult in good time before the long journey to winter quarters. Birds that depend on the color of their plumage for camouflage may grow new feathers as often as three times a year, while large birds, such as eagles and cranes, moult only every other year. The juvenile plumage of a parakeet is very similar to that of a mature bird, except that the juvenile colors are somewhat paler. The typical wavy pattern extends from the back of the head across the forehead down to the ceres (the swellings at the base of the nostrils). At about three months of age the young birds enter their first moult, and after that it is impossible to tell them from their parents. Parakeets living wild have no set moulting seasons, because their life rhythm is entirely determined by the climatic conditions of the regions they inhabit in Australia. These birds temporarily abandon their nomadic way of life only when they find areas where plentiful rainfalls promise abundant vegetation for some time to come.

Such an opportunity is used for mating and sometimes for raising several broods. Water and food are then available close by and there is no need for long flights, so the birds start a "gentle" moult at the same time. Parakeets in the wild never replace all their feathers in a moult; such a curtailment of their flying ability would be too risky. Our parakeets raised in captivity therefore have some difficulty establishing a reasonable rhythm for moulting. Many birds start their moult when the central heating season starts. Some moult in the spring or the middle of the summer, and others shed relatively few feathers at a time at several points of the year without any re cognisable reason for the timing. But stress full experiences, such as transport, change of surroundings, or being caught can also trigger a moult. Young and healthy birds undergo moult with barely any sign of impairment. You may see them pecking at their plumage more than usual to pull out loose feathers or remove a thin layer of substance enveloping the new feathers growing in. This substance then floats to the bottom of the cage in tiny flakes. Older or not altogether healthy birds, on the other hand, can be so weakened by the moult as to be unable to fly. Here you have to watch carefully. The bird might be unable to fly up from the floor or reach its cage and will then need your help. It would be altogether wrong and cruel to interfere with the process of moulting by trying to pull out feathers that seem to be loose.

Only the bird itself can feel which feathers are ready to come out. Pulling them out by force is painful, may cause bleeding, and injures the papillae in the dermis that play an important part in the growth of the new feathers. The long tail feathers take about two months to grow in, the big primaries about four to six weeks, and the small feathers, including those with the throat spots, about three weeks. Weak birds or poorly nourished ones sometimes suffer from arrested moult, i.e., the new feathers grow in reluctantly and tend to be stunted or defective. In any case parakeets should be protected from temperature fluctuations, all drafts, and frightening experiences during the moult. They need constant warmth, proper air humidity, quiet, and a diet--including sprouted kernels, fresh greens, and fruit--that is rich in vitamins and minerals although some Budgies will eat some vegetables but do not like any types of fruit. Calcium and vitamin supplements are also very important. If the bird does not seem up to par or looks sick it should be exposed to infrared light for five to ten minutes a day. A bird that is not timid or easily startled can be sprayed with lukewarm water every other day while it molts. (Be sure the spray bottle you use has never been in contact with any pesticides.)

Moulting from Fright
This form of moult is rare in pet birds. (To a parakeet living wild it offers a possible chance of escaping an enemy.) The sudden fright of being caught clumsily can cause a bird to lose a whole bunch of feathers. If this has happened to your parakeet, treat it with special loving care for a few days, protecting it from further unhappy experiences of this kind, and otherwise treat the bird as though it were undergoing a real moult.
You can also read about other feather problems here.
You can also read What to do with a Feather Plucker including tips to help birds that pick their feathers.

E-Mail: berniehansen@sympatico.ca



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