Color-changing Isn't Just for Chameleons

Many animals' coats differ between the winter and summer months. If you have a pet that spends time outdoors, do you notice them getting "furrier" when it’s cold out? Well, our birds have their own way of growing a “coat” called molting and after it happens they look beautiful.


Molting is the process of feather replacement: the bird will lose and drop the feathers from the year before and grow new ones in the same place. It's kind of like how we lose our baby teeth and our adult teeth grow in in the same spot. New feathers are covered in a plastic-like keratin “feather sheath” that protects the new, living feather from the elements. When the feather sheath peels off and the feather is fully grown in, the bird has brand new plumage to show off and use to keep warm in the winter.


Feathers become tattered after months of flying, bathing, and running through plants, so replacing them is important for the bird to be able to keep warm in the winter! Sometimes the new feathers look much different than the old, making birds hard to recognize from season to season. All birds, domestic and wild, undergo molting. Some lose feathers gracefully one by one, and eventually look shinier and more clean once each feather has replaced itself. Others lose most of their feathers at the same time and are covered in tiny “pin feathers” (they look like spikes!) where the new feathers are starting to emerge. We have a nice mix of both graceful and not-so-graceful molters in our rescue flock.


Here are some of the more amazing molting transformations we have seen at West Place:


Louie, the white Muscovy, is often called “the dirtiest duck” here at the sanctuary. Muscovy ducks don’t take baths in water, they dirt-bathe, so Louie’s feathers are usually some shade of dingy brown. After his molt in the fall, he looks unrecognizable! So fresh and so clean!


Lady, an Indian runner duck, has a much darker summer coloring than when she molts and grows in new feathers before wintertime. She has the most adorable black freckles!


Cookie, a Khaki Campbell mix, looks like a lightly-baked chocolate chip cookie in the spring and summer, and a dark chocolate cookie in the winter after she completes her molt.


Because we have multiple Khaki Campbell mixes, it can become difficult to tell them apart from our dear Cookie when everyone starts to molt and grow new feathers. At that point in the year, we usually make notes on the physical differences other than feather color (feet color, eye color, body shape, bill shape, and even voice) to help distinguish members of our flock that are the same color and breed.


Color-changes don't only happen in birds. Pictured below is a Snowshoe hare. The Snowshoe hare has a darker, more earth-toned pelt in the warmer months, when snow has melted and the animal will be grazing on the bare ground. This allows the hare to blend in with its surroundings and stay hidden in the spring and summer. However, in late autumn and winter, the Snowshoe hare sheds its warm coat and bright white hairs grow in over the undercoat. This changes the coat color completely and very appropriately blends in seamlessly with the brilliant white snow that blankets its habitat once the temperatures drop.


Snowshoe hare
Photo courtesy of Scholastic SuperScience. Copyright Sumio Harada / Minden Pictures

Coat color changes can come down to a matter of camouflage for survival, like in the case of the Snowshoe hare, but in our flock, we believe it’s just how the feathers “age” in color on some ducks before bright new feathers are grown and also how clean our ducks keep themselves (or don’t - I’m talking about you, Louie!) that makes their molting look so dramatic.


Do you have birds at home? Watch out for their next molt and see if you notice any changes in their plumage color! Let us know what you see in the comments.

You can sponsor Louie, Lady, Cookie, or any of our other molting waterfowl for just $25/month. Your sponsorship covers the cost of grain, corn for foot health, monthly deworming and treats in addition to medications and vet visits.