I told you about our chief chickadee Studley Windowson and his new duds. The boy is all freshly feathered out for the next year. What is a feather, anyway? Feathers are the fanciest thing you can make out of keratin, a protein. Not you personally. All you can do is make sparse and peculiar outgrowths of hair, ratty fingernails, and dandruff. We humans might dye our keratin or paint it but we don’t make magnificent spiraled horns out of it or anything as spiffy as feathers. We have to compensate for our feeble keratin skills with art, music, and certain kinds of comedy.
Or by swiping feathers off a bird that wasn’t done with them and sticking them on ourselves. Historically, nobody waited for the feathers to fall off the bird, but instead plucked the animal, such as the egret, nearly into extinction, which is a shame, but damn, the hats were fabulous.
Keratin isn’t living tissue, which is why you can, if you have a super nice cat, clip her claws more than once. But because it isn’t living tissue, it can’t renew itself when it gets worn out. So the feathers fall off the bird periodically and the bird starts over.
Once you’ve made yourself a feather, you’d best take good care of it. You have to preen it, and nibble at it, and straighten out the little interlocking side shoots off the shaft, and keep it in good condition, so you can fly properly or repel water or stay warm or whatever you need your feathers to do. But eventually there’s going to be some wear and tear. And so, the feathers will have to be replaced by brand new ones. A warbler that never molts will end up being a sad little golf ball with bristles and stubs, just parked on the ground waiting to be someone’s lunch. I assume. It doesn’t happen.
Some birds molt once a year. Some birds do a half-assed job of it once a year and a whole-assed job later. Only a few do a complete molt twice annually, and those are the ones that really beat up their feather allocation by flying through windmills. Ha ha! Not really, just dense vegetation and such. The birds that fly through windmills quit molting altogether.
Studley is a once-a-year man and as such he looks as good now as he ever has or will. Some birds drop all their feathers at once, such as your duck, who is then temporarily flightless and moves to the center of the pond and tries not to get nabbed by anything, which is why it’s called a “duck.” (The goose has the same issue but knows how to defend itself, which is why it’s called a “goose,” and you shouldn’t turn your back on it.)
But most birds are more methodical. They’ll drop their feathers and replace them in a particular order and that way they can stay in the air, if they’ve a mind to. Crows in August show grand gaps in their wings and tails but they’re never actually grounded. They’re a little irritable though because they’re vain and they know they look like crap. They’d totally make egret feather hats if they had the materials.
For many birds, the sexes are differentiated by their outfits, and many also look different as babies than they do as adults. A particularly annoying form of bird looks different after every molt for several years in a row. This is utterly fine if you are a talented birder and can squint at a distant dot and confidently (some would say arrogantly) mark it down as a three-year-old herring gull as opposed to, say, a two-year-old herring gull, a junkyard scrabble-pigeon, or an eye floater. Gulls in general earn their keep in the birding world by being difficult to identify but theoretically solvable. Normal people can get back at birders by calling all these birds and their distant kin “seagulls,” which drives birders crazy. Keep that in your back pocket. They’ll correct you, and you’ll just shrug at them because you don’t care. They’ll feel superior and impotent at the same time, sort of like liberals.
But that is all just one more point in favor of Studley and his cohort. Not only do Studley and Marge look alike, but they stay alike all year long, and produce children that look just like them. That, there, is a considerate bird.