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If I asked you to name the season when the birds are at their best, I’m guessing you’d answer “spring.” This is when most species are in their showiest and most colorful breeding plumage. But I would like to argue that fall is the season when the birds are actually the most beautiful.
Springtime birds are sure to grab the headlines with their bright colors and contrasting patterns. Birds like sparrows, warblers and tanagers have just returned to their nesting territories and use their brilliant color to show off to mates and rivals. The beauty of autumn birds is more subtle – delicate shades of gray and buff, pale, crisp edges, all feathers are new and unblemished.
Almost all birds moult at the end of summer, replacing their worn-out feathers from the breeding season with a whole new set as they head into winter. Some of the replaced feathers are a year old, and after all that time and a grueling summer of nesting and raising young, a bird can look pretty ragged. It is perhaps partly this contrast that makes autumn birds so attractive as they transform from the worn “threaded” feathers of summer into a whole set of brand new feathers.
The beauty of autumn birds is more subtle – delicate shades of gray and buff, pale, crisp edges, all feathers are new and unblemished.
Most species do not need showy plumage during the winter and instead have colors that help them stay hidden from predators – shades of brown, gray and olive. It takes a good close view to truly appreciate their beauty, the delicate markings of individual feathers and the intricate patterns formed by groups of feathers.
Take the time to admire the plumage perfection of familiar birds this fall. They will never be as beautiful as they are now.
What to Look for When Birds Shed Worn Feathers
This article first appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe now.