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Why do birds lose their feathers? What is molting? How can you help them through it? Jessi gives you all the answers helped by some of her feathered friends.

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Hi guys.  Welcome back to Animal Wonders.  I'm Jessi and we got a great request from dunkinthelion.  He said, "Can you talk more about molting in birds or explain it because my bird is molting and I would like to know more."  

First off, when birds molt, it's when they drop out their old feathers and grow new ones, basically like shedding in mammals.  Birds molt once or twice a year.  If they're molting more often than that, then something's wrong.  It could mean that they have an improper diet that's not including all of their necessary nutrients or it could mean their light cycle is off.  Most tropical birds like 12 hours of dark and 12 hours of light.  If they're living in captivity with artificial lighting, it could throw off their circadian rhythm.

Another cause could be stress.  If they have too much stress, it can alter their hormones, which can cause them to molt more often, or the bird is plucking, meaning they're pulling out their own feathers, which will cause them to grow back out of their normal molting cycle.

When a bird molts, the new feathers coming in can be itchy or uncomfortable.  This can actually change their behavior, but it depends on your bird's species and their individual personality.  For example, Maui the green-cheek conure, she gets a little grumpy when she's going through a molt, so I have to give her her space until she's done, but Zoe the red lored Amazon parrot, she does not get grumpy like Maui does.  Instead, she makes these jumping movements.  Basically, she's getting surprised by the itchy feeling and jumping and turning around and itching it right away.  It's an interesting behavior that she has, and then there's Joy the blue and gold macaw, who just gets really needy during this uncomfortable time, which means I just need to spend more time being with her and soothing her.  She especially loves little head rubs like this.

So what's happening when a bird molts?  Well, the old feather falls out and new feathers grow in in a really interesting way.  They grow out of  a follicle in the bird's skin, but they're covered in a sheath.  When they first come out, they don't look like a normal feather.  They kind of look like pointy, like a pin, which is why they're called pin feathers.  During this early stage, there's a blood supply that flows directly into the new feather, and then once the feather is developed enough, the blood flow will start to recede.  As the feather continues to develop, the bird will groom the sheath off and reveal the feather inside.  The bird will continue grooming the feather until it's shaped the way it's supposed to be.  This means straightening the barbs on the sides and zipping the (?~2:28) together. 

If the bird has a companion, they'll help them groom the feathers that they can't reach on their own, which is the back of the neck and their head.  If they don't have a companion to do that for them, you're going to have to help them get the flaky sheath off of their pin feathers.  If you don't help them, they'll continue to be uncomfortable and their feathers won't be water-proof and they won't keep them warm, not to mention, they're gonna look pretty silly with spikes all over their head.  

So here are the best things to do when your bird is molting.  Provide extra humidity by misting them down with a mister more often.  This will make them more comfortable.  Be patient and understanding with their mood swings.  It's not fun being itchy all the time, and avoid petting them too much until the pin feathers have grown enough that they can be easily groomed.  Too much rigorous petting can result in damage to the pin feathers.  Since the blood supply flows directly into the feather, if it's damaged, it'll start to bleed.  It's kind of like a straw directly to the blood vessel.  It doesn't clot and seal quickly.  Continuous loss of blood can weaken and even kill the bird, so the bleeding needs to be stopped immediately.  You can use styptic powder or cornstarch in an emergency, and then you need to get them to a vet ASAP.  If you can't get to the vet right away and you're trained to do it, you can remove the feather yourself with a pair of tweezers.  You'll need to pull the feather out at the follicle where the skin can seal off the opening. 

If all goes well with the molt, freshly grown feathers are beautiful and they can indicate the overall health of your bird, which is why this is a great time to make note of any changes in color or pattern.  Dark bars, ripples, or tattered edges can be signs of illness or poor diet, so be kind to your molting bird during this time and they will learn to trust you even more.  

Thanks again to dunkinthelion for asking this question.  If you have any other questions you'd like me to answer, go ahead and leave them in the comments below, and for those of you that don't know, Animal Wonders is a Complexly production.  Complexly makes a lot of educational videos on YouTube, like Animal Wonders and our friends at Nature League.  Nature League is a new channel and I am loving their content, so you should check it out.  Link is below.  Thanks and I'll see you next week.