Fellows shed their feathered finery

2008-03-01 00:00

How lucky that there aren’t too many mirrors in nature. If there were, moulting birds might go into spirals of depression or become totally anti-social while they lost their breeding beauty, feather by feather.

Spare a thought for the male Spotted-backed Weavers right now. Instead of showing their bright yellow heads and smart black masks, they are becoming spotty while they slowly don drab female dress in readiness for the restful non-breeding season.

I hope the females do not titter and smirk from the safety of a nearby shrub as the erstwhile macho, gorgeously attired guys morph quietly into a bunch of testosterone-free and drab boys. I am told (by a macho male) that this is the only way they can get respite from the frenzied attention of the ladies. Who’s to argue?

The process of moulting is one of nature’s marvels. Obviously a bird’s feathers must be in tip-top condition most of the time; if its feathers are not in good shape, it cannot fly well and it follows that it cannot find enough food or a mate, or escape predators, or keep warm. The big wing-feathers, the flight feathers, are dropped one at a time (from each side at the same time). When the new one is about half-grown the next one falls out, and so on, until all the feathers are new and strong. The body feathers are not moulted in such a strict order and many more than one can be shed at a time.

The whole process takes five weeks on average and at the end of it every feather has been replaced with a sturdy new one. This is the reason that birds never appear to age in the sense that we do — they never look grey and old and worn, but forever young and spry. For in the bird world you are either a chipper, fully functioning flying machine or you are dead. Ponder on that if you will.

Near-panic set in when I went to my local supermarket and found the shelf usually reserved for digestive bran filled with rows of something else. This “used-to-be-cheap” stuff — the residue of the refining process, dry brown flakes that my meal-worms live in and live off — was out of stock.

Thoughts of famine — skinny anorexic worms, and worse, disappointed birds — filled my head. What could I use as a substitute? Would the wrigglies cope with raw breakfast oats or would wholewheat flour be better? Luckily the delightful attendant assured me that stocks of the required bran were in fact already in the shop, simply not unpacked. Whew, what a relief! I returned later and bought so much digestive bran that the amazed attendant inquired whether I was a health fanatic or baking many muffins. The truth would simply have been too difficult to explain, so I left quietly, clutching my packets, before she called the men in white.

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