Understanding Molting

Molting is a natural process for your bird, but too much molting can indicate a serious health issue.

A bird will naturally shed its old feathers and replace them with new ones. Feathers, which are “dead” organic parts - like human fingernails - cannot be repaired by a bird’s natural processes, so they are replaced instead. Like a hair follicle, a feather follicle will not stimulate growth for a new feather unless the old one has been removed. This removal process is called molting.

Seasonal Molting
Different species of birds molt at different times, and molting often coincides with the seasons, migrations, nutritional status, or reproductive cycle. Besides replacing old or damaged feathers, molting also helps to regulate a bird’s body temperature during the winter. When you purchase your bird, find out what time of the year you can expect it to start molting.

During its regular molting period, your bird will slowly replace most of its feathers. This is a tough time for your pet. It uses extra energy to generate the new feathers, and is often stressed. Birds that sing or talk will do so less often during its molting period. The period can last anywhere from several weeks to several months. Parrot species in particular are known to have extremely long molting periods.

More than ever, this is the time to ensure that your bird has the nutritional diet that it needs. You should increase the amount of food that you give it by at least 25%. Some stores will sell special molting food, but you can also just add fresh vegetables, fruits, and cereals to your bird’s diet.

It is also important to make sure that your bird’s environment is warm during molting. Feathers function as insulation, and the loss of even a few feathers can make your pet vulnerable to drafts.

Your bird will naturally feel more defensive and fearful during the molting process. In the wild, birds often find a quiet, dark place to rest, as the process consumes much of their surplus energy. Help your bird out by providing it with the quiet that it needs. You can also give it a small measure of privacy by covering part of the cage. Your bird will feel more comfortable and be less stressed during the molting process.

Irregular Feather Loss
If your bird is losing feathers at a time other than its regular molting period, there may be a problem. Often, feather loss due to plucking can be mistaken for molting. Some potential causes of plucking are:

  • Boredom or lack of exercise
  • Too much or not enough natural sunlight
  • Too much or not enough humidity
  • Improper nutrition
  • Illness

In particular, birds will often pluck their own feathers during the winter, when household humidity often drops. Most birds that are kept as pets are naturally used to a rainforest climate, so their feathers can become dry and itchy. To remedy this, be sure that your bird has access to a birdbath, and try lightly misting its feathers with water once a day. This will make its home environment more similar to wet, humid rainforests.

Abnormal Molting
Most species of parrots, cockatoos, and macaws and lovebirds are vulnerable to a virus called Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD. PBFD attacks the immune system and the cells responsible for feathers and beaks, and will often show up when birds molt. If your bird’s feathers grow back abnormally, are missing, or are loose immediately after molting, you should immediately contact your veterinarian and make sure that it isn’t sick. There is no cure for PBFD and the disease is highly contagious so prompt treatment and prevention are the best ways to combat this illness.