My resident male bluebird has outdone himself this spring. In the past week, he has changed from a beautiful blue into a drop dead gorgeous blue – a blue that could never be duplicated on any artist’s palette. He is stunning. Also, at my feeder I have noticed that the gold finches are just starting to gain color. A hint of yellow is peaking through what were once olive gray feathers. Even the little male house finches are getting in on the act, as their red heads and chests are more pronounced in color.
Numerous birds use color as a way to attract a mate. The longer days of spring get the process started and it has to do with molting.
Molting is a process of feather replacement. All birds do it. They have to grow new feathers once or twice a year to stay warm, dry, and airborne, and in many cases they grow differently colored feathers at different seasons to match their surroundings or to impress others of their species.
As a rule, all species have a complete molt in the late summer but a few have a partial molt in the spring. Such is the case with goldfinches and bluebirds.
In the spring, the new feathers emerging on a goldfinch are brilliant yellow instead of the dull grays. The feathers on the birds don’t actually change color, the birds just grown new plumage and that’s what we notice.
One bird whose colors do not increase in intensity in the spring is the male cardinal. Cardinals are always brilliant red, but I believe the red is more distinct in the winter. Nothing is quite as stunning as a fiery red cardinal sitting on a snow covered twig. Their beauty shows through all year long.
But it’s a welcome sign to see the changing colors of the finches and other songbirds. It means spring is on the way.