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Those who have pigeons living with them (either in an aviary or in their home) will know how messy and uncontrollable feathers can be – especially during a moult! Back in January I wrote a quick post about Georgie moulting – the fact that her feathers were everywhere! (See Moulting) Having to clean up after a moulting pigeon can be frustrating since feathers have a habit of travelling under sofas and desks and tag along on your clothes as you leave the house all prim and proper. The neighbours must think we have a flock of birds living in our flat!

So what exactly is going on when a pigeon (or any bird for that matter) moults? Why do they do it and how?

Firstly, one must understand how important feathers are to a bird. I think this paragraph sums it up nicely:

“Feathers are unique to birds. Engineered by evolution, their extreme lightness combined with exceptional strength and flexibility makes feathers the ideal flying gear. They constitute a truly multi-functional body-suit that is also adapted for numerous other functions. Feathers may act as hearing aids, water carriers, versatile all-weather gear or as dashing courtship finery. They can provide a camouflaged covering, rendering birds almost invisible, or their bright iridescent splashes of colour can turn heads.” Birds, The Inside Story by Rael and Hélène Loon, 2005

So you get the picture; feathers are very important to birds because they enable them to do what they need to do in order to survive (i.e. fly, hunt, escape, attract, protect, etc.). It is therefore extremely important that birds preen and bathe their feathers – to keep them in good condition. However, preening cannot stop feathers from becoming old and worn through natural wear and tear. Feathers need to be replaced with new, strong ones at regular intervals – and this is called moulting.

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From Pigeons. A Complete Pet Owner's Manual, page 62

There are three main types of feathers (see picture for more details):

  1. Flight feathers – which consist of the wings primary and secondary flight feathers and the tail feathers. These enable the birds to fly.
  2. Contour feathers – these cover all parts of the wings and body with the purpose of streamlining the bird for flight and to help insulate and protect the bird from the elements.
  3. Down feathers – which are numerous and found under the contour feathers. They trap air to insualte the bird.

Pigeons moult every year from mid-July to mid-December (according to Pigeons. A Complete Pet Owner’s Manual by Matthew M. Vriends and Tommy E. Erskine, 2005).

They don’t just drop all their feathers at once – that would leave them unable to fly and leave them exposed to predators and the elements – rather, they first drop their primary feathers, generally two at a time (one from each wing). New feathers grow through and old ones drop out. The tail and contour feathers are also dropped at about the same time as the flight ones. The tail feathers are dropped in pairs. When the primary feathers have moulted through, the secondaries start their moult. The feathers of the head, neck, breast and belly all moult at the same time which can leave the pigeon looking a bit bald in places. The down feathers randomly moult throughout the year. (Info from: Pigeons. A Complete Pet Owner’s Manual by Matthew M. Vriends and Tommy E. Erskine, 2005)

Many things can affect moulting – ill health will cause poor feather growth, as well as poor diet. Indoor pigeons that don’t have access to direct sunlight tend to moult more often (UV light from the sun helps with feather growth).

A word about blood feathers. A new feather needs a blood supply to grow. This supply is found in the shaft of the feather and once the feather is fully grown the blood supply recedes and the follicle closes up. If a blood feather is broken then a lot of blood may be lost through the shaft. Please call your veterinarian for advice on what to do if this happens. If a lot of blood feathers are broken then there might be danger of severe blood loss.

More about feather anatomy at: Bird Feather Types, Anatomy, Growth, Color, and Molting.