A male (left) and a female American goldfinch visit a thistle feeder. The male goldfinch undergoes a striking color change in early spring for its breeding season. Its plumage transforms from a dull, drab brown into a vibrant, lemon yellow color. KEN THOMAS/WIKIPEDIA COMMONS
Photo: Ken Thomas
Photo: Ken Thomas

WILD GEORGIA: As spring nesting approaches, songbird plumage becomes more vivid

Charles Seabrook’s “Wild Georgia” column appears weekly in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The feathers of the songbirds in your yard are turning brighter and spiffier now — a sprucing up for the spring nesting season.

As nature writer Gary Clark puts it: “The transformation of songbirds’ plumage rivals the beauty of blooming wildflowers each spring.”

The annual process actually begins in late summer and early fall after the nesting season, when most songbird species in Georgia undergo a complete molt to replace all of their old feathers — which, after a year, have become worn, ragged and ratty looking. To stay warm, dry and airborne, the birds must grow new feathers.

Ornithologists call these new feathers a bird’s “basic plumage.”

Still, even with new feathers, the plumages may appear a little dull during late fall and most of winter. But by late winter and early spring, another change takes place — the dull tips and edges of the feathers wear off, leaving the feathers a brilliant hue — the “breeding plumage.”

A vibrant breeding plumage is crucial to a male songbird’s ability to attract mates and ward off rivals.

This process is starting to happen now among most backyard birds — blue jays, bluebirds, cardinals, robins, red-bellied woodpeckers and others. The dull tips and edges of the male cardinal’s feathers, for instance, have abraded and left him in his dazzling red breeding plumage. The tips and edges of the American robin’s feathers are wearing away to reveal a bright, brick-red color on its underside.

An exception is the male American goldfinch. It also had a complete molt in late summer, but its new feathers were mostly a dull, drab brown. Now, unlike most other songbirds, the goldfinch is growing new body feathers — a partial molt. Over the next couple of months, its drab plumage will transform into a neon-bright lemon yellow.

» The Great Backyard Bird Count is taking place between now and Monday: gbbc.birdcount.org.

IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon is in its last quarter tonight and will be new on Friday. Venus is low in the west after dusk and sets about two hours later. Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are low in the east about two hours before dawn. Appearing near the moon before sunrise will be Mars on Tuesday, Jupiter on Wednesday and Saturn on Thursday.

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