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Enter the Moult
by R C McDonald
Copyright © 2004
Moulting (or molting) is this really interesting thing all birds do, where
every once in awhile they will start to shed feathers everywhere as
aging, hard-used feathers are replaced by new.
It's mind-boggling to contemplate the amount of feathers, large and
small, that this process always seems to produce. Cleaning them up
can seem endless.
Worse, most (if not all) singing will generally stop, and the birds can
look rather frowsy until the process is complete. One canary-keeper
described her birds as "looking rather like a lawn mower ran over them
backwards," when they were moulting, and often that is a rather
Many birds are subject to grumpiness during this time, and are apt
to become easily stressed, reacting negatively to even relatively
minor changes in their environment or routine.
Inevitably, somewhere along the line a researcher wondered if canary
owners really had to go through all this every year - what would
happen if conditions were such that moulting just did not occur?
It was determined that seasonal changes in lighting and heat were
the two biggest triggers for the moult in canaries, and an experiment
was set up that kept the lighting and temperature the same year round,
with no variances. The results were surprising.
True, the birds did not moult. But - and this was totally unexpected -
when their bodies were not allowed to moult in the usual manner -
eventually all the birds in the experiment died!
The conclusion was that moulting, while inconvenient to the owners,
was of extreme importance to the birds themselves.
So now we know that our birds need to moult occasionally. With
canaries, usually that is roughly once a year, in the mid to late summer.
But what else do we need to know about moulting?
Well, in canaries, the moult is mostly brought on by the light the bird
sees. Lighting is very important to canaries, more so than most of us
would tend to think. Canaries evolved so that their bodies respond
physically to the amount of light which enters their eyes.
This light triggers changes in the bird's endocrine system, and causes
the beginnings or endings to some rather extreme physical changes
throughout the bird's life. How these changes are carried out can
affect his personality, his health, his appearance, attitude and his lifespan.
Every year, male canaries herald the spring with increased song
and mating displays. Seeing this increased amount and intensity of
songs, their owners become very proud that their bird is happy,
without realizing what has triggered all the singing - the longer days
are telling him it is time to find a mate. In response, he begins to
proclaim his ownership of his territory, and his eligibility to mate
The summer solstice approaches and passes, and suddenly the canary
finds its days beginning to get shorter again.
The weather after the solstice is commonly the hottest of the year,
and to some extent, heat does seem to be a factor in triggering the
annual moult. But largely, the canary is sensitive to the lighting that
he sees. When the long days of early summer begin to shorten again,
a canary's instincts tell him that mid-summer is soon to become fall,
and that now is the time to moult out old feathers, growing in new
ones before colder weather arrives.
Thus the old feathers begin to fall, replaced by the new, in the age-old
ritual of renewal. But in the last decade or so, we have learned that
more than feathers are renewed during this time, for studies have
shown that a canary's brain will grow new brain cells, at the same
time his body is growing new feathers.
Most of these new cells show up in the center of the brain that controls
song. Most canaries will stop actively singing much, if at all, while
all these physical changes are taking place, but song still plays a
very important role in their lives.
During the moult they will spend a lot of their attention listening to
all the sounds in their environment, listening for sound combinations
that they find attractive. Some may spend some time practicing
soft disjointed phrases of song as if to themselves under their breath,
practicing the feel of producing certain sounds while learning how
to reproduce them.
Many of those sounds - the ones he finds the most agreeable and
interesting, at least - will end up incorporated into his song, once
the bird resumes singing. But the converse is true as well - if he
doesn't hear much of anything that he considers to be of interest
while he is moulting, he may not have much of a song by the time
his moult is completed.
Stress can cause loss of feathers too - but this is rightly not a true
moult. Some possible causes of stress are drafts; people (children
too) or pets staring fixedly at the bird, causing him to think of them
as predators; an inadequate, incomplete, or unbalanced diet;
widely varying temperatures within the same day; or too much
silence in the bird's environment. Birds do NOT like things to
be quiet! They also don't like sudden loud unannounced noises,
but a steadily noisy environment usually makes them feel right at home.
How well the moult is completed is controlled largely by the diet.
Moulting increases the nutrient requirements, and very often a diet
that might normally be considered adequate is not a good diet
at all, during the moult.
Available nutrients can make a huge difference in overall health,
and especially in the speed at which the moult is completed, because
if the necessary nutrients are not available, the moult will not be
able to be completed until they are.
For this reason, all birds on seed-based diets need regular
vitamin/mineral supplementation. Moulting takes a lot of nutrients,
and if they aren't available in the bloodstream, they will come out
of the bird's bodily stores - or wait until enough trickles in through
the food, if necessary.
A normal moult will usually last for at least four or five weeks, and
can stretch to eight, ten, or even twelve weeks, with the normal
period being in the neighborhood of six to eight weeks. If a moult
should continue for longer than twelve weeks, other factors are at
play, and steps should be taken to solve them.
by R C McDonald
Reprinted with Permission
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