Hummingbird Molting – When and Why do Hummingbirds Molt?

hummingbird molting
All species of hummingbirds molt, and with over 900 feathers on their body; after the summer breeding season, these feathers need to be replaced. Old feathers begin to fall out, and new feathers grow. Each hummingbird molts once per year, though the molting process can happen in 2 or 3 stages over about five weeks.

Molting is crucial for hummingbirds. In order to migrate, mate, and feed properly, hummingbirds must replace their old feathers with new ones each year. The process of molting happens once a year, prior to the migration of the avian species. Hummingbirds need new wing feathers in order to have good flight capabilities during their long travels.

Molting of Migrant Species of Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds molt each year, growing new feathers to replace the old. Migratory hummingbirds molt their body feathers before flying to wintering grounds, but many molt their tail and flight feathers after arriving in South or Central America. North American hummingbird species like the Black-chinned Hummingbird and the Ruby-throated Hummingbird were once thought to molt after reaching their wintering grounds.

However, recent observations by bird banders reveal that these species begin their molts before migrating. Ornithologists now believe that hummingbirds begin molting with their body feathers. They save the molting of their flight feathers, starting with the outer primaries (or outer wing feathers) and tail feathers (rectrices), for after they arrive on wintering grounds.

Fall Migration Annual Molt

Before the hummingbird’s voyage to their wintering grounds, they begin molting. Adult male hummingbirds begin molting about one week before adult females since they migrate about a week before females. Males typically molt during the last week of July or the first week of August. By beginning their molt in late summer, hummingbirds can finish the first molting stage when they begin flying south for the winter.

Growing new feathers takes a lot of energy. During the end of summer, hummingbirds are very active at feeders. They frequently feed to ensure they have enough energy to molt and put on a layer of fat before they migrate south. Male hummingbirds finish shedding all of their feathers in time for the breeding season in their wintering grounds. Adult males attract better mates if they look their best with a new coat of feathers.

What Is The Purpose of A Hummingbird's Molt?

What Is The Purpose of A Hummingbird’s Molt?

Hummingbird feathers get broken and destroyed quickly. Molting ensures that hummingbirds are in their best shape so they can fly easily during migration. Molting also ensures hummingbirds have a fresh covering of feathers to endure winter and colder temperatures. 

Hummingbird feathers are covered in keratin, the same protein that covers human hair and nails. When feathers get damaged, they can’t heal and must be replaced. Both migration and breeding seasons are hard on hummingbird feathers. Males engage in battles for territory or females that can damage feathers. Each hummingbird needs to replace their old feathers with new ones that can protect them from predators and weather.

If you see a hummingbird during this time, it may appear fuzzy or disheveled. Their bright colors have temporarily disappeared had have been replaced with pin feathers. Pin feathers are new feathers that are grown on birds when they molt. These feathers are short when they first appear out from the skin. Pin feathers are covered in keratin, and hummingbirds must preen and fluff these new feathers to help them unfold and grow properly.

Is the Hummingbird gorget affected by the molting?

Is the Hummingbird gorget affected by the molting?

Yes, molting affects a hummingbird’s gorget. When hummingbirds molt, they molt their body feathers, including their gorget. Since males depend on their iridescent body feathers and brightly colored gorgets for attracting mates, they need to keep these feathers fresh.

Juvenile hummingbirds get their full colors after molting. They usually molt within a few months of their birth. They replace their dull feathers, including their gorget, with their adult plumage. They will then molt each year as adult birds.

Juvenile male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, for example, have mostly white throat feathers until their molt. Afterward, their iridescent red throat feathers grow in, and they are ready to migrate. A recent study suggests that Rufous Hummingbirds and Anna’s hummingbirds replace their gorgets before the rest of their body feathers.

Sarah Pearce

Sarah enjoys feeding hummingbirds in the warmer months, and a range of finches, woodpeckers, and cardinals in the cooler months. She enjoys researching and learning more about birds, gardening, and preserving food. She is learning how to maximize her small city backyard and is amazed at all the possibilities. She lives in southwestern Indiana with her family.

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