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I was out early with the pups on Monday morning and was surprised by the birds that greeted me. I heard a male cardinal singing—in August! Not one of those rich, throaty melodies, but a song, nevertheless. Three flickers were foraging on a dead tree trunk near the wood's edge. When they flew off, I could hear them calling in the distance.

A number of small birds flitted about in the treetops — most likely warblers that I couldn't identify. But my biggest surprise was to see a brown creeper spiraling its way around a thick tree trunk in the back yard. I surely didn't expect to see it in August — especially since they completely eluded me all of last winter.

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The leaves on the tulip poplar on the edge of our property are turning from green to yellow already. Is that supposed to be happening in August?

A glance at the feeders revealed a poor old bald-headed blue jay perched on the covered tray feeder. All the feathers were missing from the face and head, and the crest was gone. Feathers were missing in small splotches in other areas of its body. It seemed too shy to even take a bite of food. It needn't have been embarrassed by its half-naked appearance though it does look pretty crazy to see a blue jay without a feather on its head.

From its odd appearance, one might think the poor bird was suffering from some awful disease, but one needn't worry. It is experiencing the annual molt — a process that all songbirds must endure at summer's end. Old worn out feathers fall out as fresh new feathers push their way through to create a bright new suit of clean and colorful feathers.

Molting is the process of feather replacement that occurs at regular intervals in the life of a bird — usually once or twice a year. Feathers are like our fingernails. They are lifeless, horny structures that wear out and must be replaced. They are made of the protein keratin which gives them strength and flexibility.

Feathers take a lot of abuse, and birds seem to know instinctively that they must take care of them. Perhaps you have observed them cleaning, preening, bathing, and dusting as they groom their feathers. The beak is used like a comb during preening to bring the parts of the feathers together that have been pulled apart.

Most birds grow a new set of feathers at least once a year — most often in the late summer and fall. A few, like the goldfinch, have a second molt in the spring. As new feathers grow in, they push the old feathers out. Feathers do not change color except to fade as they wear out. When the plumage of a bird changes color during the year, the color change is due to the different feather colors of each seasonal molt.

If you are feeding the birds now, check them out in your backyard. You may see some strange, patched-looking costumes and bashful birds, including bald-headed blue jays and crestless cardinals — most likely trying to keep a low profile.

In a few more weeks, the songbirds will be sporting their most colorful costumes of the year with feathers that are fresh and bright. They will be prepared for the winter season with a thick coat of feathers. As the days grow shorter and temperatures cooler, Mother Nature is preparing her wildlings for the changing seasons.

Tomorrow is the first day of school, and lots of kids will be saying good-bye to summertime as they head off to begin a new year of adventures in learning. A sure sign that summer is coming to an end.

I know one excited kid — my grandson, Reece Yingling. He is heading to kindergarten and gets to ride the school bus tomorrow for his very first day of school. Wishing all the children, and teachers, a terrific first day and a wonderful year of learning together.

The Carroll County Bird Club will hold its first meeting of the fall season at the Non-profit Center in Westminster on Sept. 2 at 7 p.m. Paul Baicich, noted birder and author, will talk about "Bird Feeding in America: A Story of Wild Birds, Innovation, and Conservation."

If you are one of the more than 55 million people who feeds wild birds (and even if you aren't), join us as we learn about the history of bird feeding and learn tips including the "five steps to double the number of species at your feeder."

All are welcome to attend.

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