Looking like 'shabby chicks' are in this fall

Looks like the songbirds have decided that "shabby chic'" is the new fall fashion statement for feather wear!

I don't know about chic, but some of them are looking mighty shabby these days. Maybe "shabby chicks" would be more appropriate.


Last week I observed an ugly cardinal (I'm feeling guilty referring to a cardinal as ugly) — a female — that was missing her crest as well as clumps of feathers here and there on her body. Dark colored skin was visible where the feathers were absent. She seemed to be hiding among the branches of the large burning bush in our backyard — embarrassed to show herself. The leaves are just beginning to change from green to red allowing the muted taupe, red, and dark skin tones of the cardinal to blend into its background.

The annual period of costume changes began for the songbirds in August. The process is a gradual one that generally lasts for several weeks. Mother Nature provides each bird a new coat to help them get through the winter. Even the youngest birds exchange a few feathers.

Bird feathers are composed of dead tissue (like our hair and fingernails), and they take quite a beating during the course of a year. They become extremely worn and must be replaced.

The process of feather replacement is called molting, and almost all birds in North America have a complete feather molt in late summer or early fall. As new feathers begin to push through, the old worn ones fall out of their follicles. Instead of all the feathers falling out at once, they generally come out in patches — a process that can take several weeks and allows for gradual replacement and also presents us with some odd-looking birds for a while.

The process is stressful and requires a good bit of energy so Mother Nature has chosen the end of the nesting season, and usually before fall migration, to renew tattered plumage.

A few bird species have a second molt in early spring before the breeding season begins. It is usually a partial molt that changes a bird's appearance. It is during this spring molt that the male goldfinch loses his dull green suit and dons a vivid yellow one, accessorized with a black cap, just in time to participate in the rituals of the breeding season.

Some of the birds seem to make themselves scarce while their feathers are being replaced because they are more vulnerable to predators at this time. It won't be long though before all the songbirds will be wearing their splendid new plumes — prepared to face the challenges that the winter season is sure to bring ... except of course the ones that have enough sense to take their fancy new clothes and move South for the winter!

The birds are moving about in great numbers at this time of year as fall migration is underway. We are right in the path of the Eastern Flyway, one of several main avenues for birds heading south in the fall of the year.

The period of "shabby chic" should soon be over as the songbirds complete their fall molt and don themselves in their bright new plumes. Then, they may be called chic but there will be nothing shabby about them. They will be prepared for the winter season with a thick coat of fresh new feathers.

Increase in number of feathers in winter feather coat as opposed to summer suit.

NOTE: The Carroll County Bird Club will participate in the annual Fall Bird Count on Sept. 17. Individuals and teams will count resident and late migrant bird species throughout the county. If you are interested in participating, contact by Sept. 14 for details.