Why do birds lose their feathers?

Have you ever wondered what happens when birds lose their feathers? And can birds without flight feathers still fly? We are going to talk about this and more in this article.

Birds can lose their feathers due to molting, medical problems, and feather plucking. Most often, birds will lose feathers naturally, the same way as hair get exposed to the elements, such as wind and dirt throughout time. This natural decay means they need to replace their feathers with new ones, through a process called molting.

Aside from the environment, parasites can also damage bird feathers. Creatures such as bacteria, mites, lice, among others feed off birds’ keratin-rich feathers.

What does it mean when a bird loses feathers?

It definitively means that they’re not ready to go on a bird date! They look so weird while molting! It may affect their ability to fly and is very uncomfortable.

Feathers, like your fingernails or hair, are considered dead tissue. Once they reach their full development they cannot repair themselves. Therefore after a period of time, they become worn out, rough around the edges, and need to be replaced. This process is commonly called molting.

Bald Cardinal (Source: John Brighenti / Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

How often does molting happen?

Molting happens at least once a year or more and occurs during weather-changing phases of the year, most likely during late summer. Because molting is a high energy-consuming activity, birds will molt when they are not busy migrating or nesting.

Nature is so perfect that birds will grow a fresh set of feathers just in time for the challenges of migration and winter weather.

Molting feathers comparison. Source: Cmnh

Large birds replace their feathers in stages over a period of several years. Now small songbirds generally replace feathers twice a year.

In some species, birds might even change the color of their feathers in the fall. The prime example is the American Goldfinch. These birds have bright yellow colors in the spring, so they look their best to attract a mate. By winter, they take on the olive-brown appearance of the females, which helps them better blend in with their surroundings.

How long does molting take?

New feathers don’t grow in constantly but on an as-needed basis. Birds may lose all of their feathers at once (commonly among waterfowl) or gradually, depending on the species.

The molt typically starts with the innermost primary feather and works out; similarly, the central tail feathers tend to be shed first. Paler feathers wear more quickly because they lack melanin, a pigment that strengthens cells and protects them from damage.

Males birds will most often start to molt earlier than females. The females wait to start molting until chicks are fully fledged. 

Because losing one feather at a time takes time, some birds, such as ravens can take up to 6 months to complete their molting. This long period may sound too bad, but that also means they will still be able to fly normally without their flight feathers.

Albatrosses are absolutely dependent on flight efficiency, and in at least one species there is evidence that they have to skip nesting every four years just to focus on finishing up molt on their wings.

Can birds still fly after losing feathers?

Positive! Most birds can still fly during molting, but it may be more of a challenge for them. 

Most birds lose their flight feathers on each wing at the same time, keeping their wings symmetrical throughout the molting process. That minimizes the amount of time that the birds are flightless. Nature is so wise!

However, some waterfowl such as ducks might temporarily become flightless during the molting process. This means that they are extremely vulnerable and stay in the water to protect themselves from any danger.

Problems that molting cause

During molting season, birds can face the following problems:

Cold –  Even though birds don’t usually lose all of their feathers at once, it significantly reduces their insulation. As a consequence, they are more vulnerable to heat loss.

Energy – As we mentioned before, growing new feathers takes a lot of energy, especially when considering the bird is less insulated than usual and has a harder time flying around.

Vulnerability to predators –  As birds lose their feathers they become more vulnerable to predators. Although most birds don’t lose the ability to fly completely, even the loss of one or two flight feathers can make a bird less mobile in the air. This is the reason why birds seem to disappear in late summer. They keep a low profile and sing less to avoid drawing the attention of predators. 

Is molting painful for birds?

Most likely. Besides dealing with the issues we pointed out above, the feeling of the new feather protruding through their skin is very uncomfortable.

Molting parrot
African Grey parrot molting

How can I help birds during the molting process?

Molting is an uncomfortable process. Having new feathers poking through their skin usually causes a lot of irritation to birds. It could be equivalent to baby teeth coming out.

No wonder birds get cranky! The birds often retreat to quiet spaces, reduce their activity, keep a low profile, and literally just want to be left alone!

For wild birds, molting can turn them more exposed to danger since they may not be able to fly as well as they would in full-fledged conditions. If you have a cat, put a bell on it so it has fewer chances of catching a bird.

Regarding pet birds, they will act more defensively and will seem a bit more timid than usual. It’s normal to see them acting in a grumpy manner or being more stubborn.

You can help your bird by allowing it to have more rest time by providing it with a quiet dark environment for a bit longer than usual. That is recommended because birds will spend a lot of energy during the molting process.

Help the preening process

During the molting phase, petting can hurt your bird because the pin feathers contain nerve endings and blood. You will be able to pet and handle your bird when it grows some small feathers.

Another way to help your bird is by very gently helping to preen their headpin feathers and misting them with water twice a day.

Some tips for the preening process:

  • If your bird’s sheath is waxy and hard, do not touch it, as the skin is still tender.
  • If your bird’s feathers do not fall off while tending, never not force it, as loose feathers fall on their own.
  • If your bird has a partner, let the partner pick its feathers. If the partner does not, you do it for your bird.

If they were in the wild, they would be preening each other since some areas like their head feathers are impossible to be reached on their own. But be careful as your bird may not seem receptive to touch as it can enhance the itching.

Make the room cozy

Pet birds might feel a bit cold due to the lack of feathers that help keep their bodies insulated. Make sure to keep your bird at an adequate temperature.

Provide foods with protein

Birds need the right nutrients in order to grow feathers at a faster pace. For that, make sure to provide your bird with protein-based foods, such as cucumbers and hard-boiled eggs.

Why is my bird losing its feathers?

In this section, we are covering the reasons why birds lose feathers more in-depth. To summarize, your bird could be losing feathers for three reasons:

  • Natural molting
  • Medical causes
  • Feather plucking

Natural Molting

As we mentioned above, molting is the process in which birds will naturally lose their feather due to wear and tear.  Please notice that molting rarely leads to the creation of large bald spots.

Normal molting vs Feather plucking

With regular molting, you will notice a lot of intact feathers at the bottom of the cage, whereas, with feather plucking, the feather will appear broken.

Another sign to watch is bald patches. Regular molting will hardly ever cause a large bald spot.

feather plucking
Feather plucking parrot

Medical causes

Now losing feathers due to medical causes is related to a series of different diseases, some of which are listed below:

  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Polyomavirus
  • Circovirus
  • Endoparasitism
  • Systemic diseases including liver disease and kidney problems
  • Allergies may be suspected, but are difficult to confirm in avian patients
  • Mites, lice, bacteria, and fungal (yeast) infections
  • Hormonal Imbalance
  • Although inflammation of the feather follicles (folliculitis) and skin (dermatitis) is a frequent finding, it is usually secondary to the feather’s destructive behavior

Other skin infections caused by bacteria or yeasts as mentioned above will damage a bird’s ability to retain its feathers. If a bird has a glaring bald patch, its problem is probably disease.

Feather plucking

Feather plucking happens when birds have stress problems and start mutilating themselves out of boredom.

To prevent feather plucking, be sure to watch your bird for bald spots that look red, have scabs, or seem inflamed, and watch its behavior. Sometimes plucking is accompanied by a little vocalization of discomfort with each feather being pulled. That’s the cue you need to start the contention measures.

Do bird feathers grow back?

Bald BlueJay. Source: Brian Plunkett / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

When birds lose feathers because of natural molting, they will most likely regrow in just about a month.

A bird will only lose a feather during molting because its replacement is already developing and well on the way. Once the old feather drops, the new feather will take its place soon.

However, if the cause of the loss of feathers is due to diseases or feather plucking, the damage to the follicles might be large enough to prevent growth permanently.

Why do birds lose feathers when hit?

If a bird suffers an attack of some sort, there is a chance it might lose feathers that were already on its way to molting. If the attack happens more frequently, the bird might take some time to recover feathers in the area. One example is when chickens get hit by other alpha chickens on the head or by a rooster mounting on them.


Molting is a challenging time of the year for birds. Losing feathers affect their ability to fly, to insulate themselves, and costs a lot of energy, besides being very uncomfortable.

The best we can do to help pet birds is to allow them to be quiet and have time to “process” what is happening until they are fully recovered.

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