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Unidentified bird molting
Siesta Key Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013 4 years ago

Ask Otus: 'MOLTING: It's for the Birds'

by: Otus

Otus Rufous, an Eastern Screech-owl, was born on Siesta Key and is a full-time resident there. An avid hunter, accomplished vocalist and genuine night owl, Otus is a keen observer of our local wildlife and knows many of nature's secrets. Otus will answer your questions about our amazing wildlife, but only if you Ask Otus™.


Dear Readers,

Having feasted on a pair of pleasingly plump baby Florida Marsh mice (Oryzomys palustris), it is only natural that my thoughts turn to the dichotomy between the American work ethic and the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, as set forth in the Declaration of Independence. Take, for example, the Labor Day weekend. The only human labor I observed during that long weekend was people working very hard to avoid compensated labor by pursuing fun-filled activities with family and friends.

It seemed downright unethical; especially as throughout that weekend we avian creatures were working our tails off — literally! It is called "molting."

Feathers are dead structures, pretty much like human fingernails and hair. But we birds don't have manicurists or hair stylists for touch-up work and repairs; we only have do-it-yourself kits. Over a period of several weeks or months (depending on our species) we slowly replace our worn-out feathers with new ones in order to maintain our agility in flight; to be attractive to a potential mate during the upcoming mating season; and, of paramount importance, to present a pleasant appearance to the eyes of Florida's visitors (that is, Snowbirds) during high season, which is just around the corner and here before you know it! 

Molting generally begins after nesting duties are over and the fledglings are leaving the nest and are able to fend for themselves. Molting is a slow process for most birds, especially raptors and passerines, because we can't simply drop all our feathers and wait for them to grow them back: We need to fly in order to hunt down our meals. That means we must retain symmetrical feathers for flight and for protection from the blazing sun and pouring rains i.e., feathers that regulate our body temperature.

Some species of birds are synchronous molters; that is, they shed all their old feathers. These include swans (yes, we have lots of swans around Sarasota), ducks and geese. While rendered totally flightless during a molt these birds must retreat to small, well-hidden areas with a guaranteed food source. In these "molting grounds," the birds basically hole up and hunker down for two to four weeks and dabble in the water for food — algae, duckweed, snails, the highest nutritional diet possible, until they are fully feathered again. Sitting ducks! This is highly risky and scary behavior for any raptor even to contemplate.

Last April I showed you a photo of what our local magnificent feral peacocks look like without "tail" feathers at the onset of a molt. Quite unattractive, even for a peacock. Last week, a neighbor of mine, under the condition of total anonymity, allowed me to use her photo showing her balding spots where minute pin-feathers are popping out, just to give readers an idea of how uncomfortable and ugly we become during this process.

To illustrate what happens over time to avian feathers I found an even more dramatic photo of our beloved native and permanent Siesta Key resident Osprey.

Let me introduce you to Oscar Osprey. Yes, people here love to name their birds. You know Oscar is Oscar because he has assumed the missionary position or, my favorite term, "the angelic position". Oscar is at the peak of his physical beauty. He is immaculately groomed, parasite-free, and able to perform daring aerial flight displays, oftentimes clutching a fish in his talons, just to woo and win Olivia by impressing her with his physical prowess. And for a third year, he again succeeded in gaining her acceptance and affections. Please take a close look at his impeccable tail feathers, which he has thoughtfully displayed to one side in order to tightly join with Olivia in their cloacal kiss. They are perfection. I mean the feathers!

Now take a look at Oscar some 100 days later. His tail feathers are erose and severely damaged from diving and hitting the hard surface of the Gulf or Bay waters time after time, day after day, as he fishes for Olivia and the wee ones. Also note that he is obviously water-logged, something that makes his flying more of an effort and certainly more dangerous. He is exhausted and by now actually weighs less than any one of his chicks. And, as feathers can comprise up to 15% of a bird's body weight, it wouldn't surprise me to know that his afternoon catch, a catfish, weighs more than he does.

After the chicks hatched and until they neared the fledgling stage, Oscar subsided on an incredibly rich high-protein diet consisting of a fish head and its spinal cortex. He then brought the headless fish to the nest where Olivia would meticulously pick away at it and gently dole out little pieces to the wee ones. Eventually, the chicks grew large and old enough to learn by observing their parents how to proceed safely in killing and eating a whole live, wriggling, protesting fish — a fish armed with razor sharp teeth or, in the case of needlefish, a deadly dangerous beak.

Did you know that large needlefish have actually killed fisherfolk? This is particularly true in the Pacific Ocean where commercial night fishing is commonplace. Schools of needlefish, attracted by the lights on boats, jump at the lanterns with speeds of over 30 mph and impale fishermen. Their beaks often break off and remain imbedded in their victims. According to Wikipedia "needlefish represent an even greater risk of injury [to fishermen] than sharks”. Here is a photo of a very brave Oscar expertly "disarming" a needlefish before bringing it to the nest.

Oscar and Olivia stayed close to their fully-fledged chicks for a couple weeks to ensure their offspring's protection and education. Afterwards, they granted the adolescents temporary use of their territory and fishing rights and moved away to tend to their own physical needs. Lots of R&R and fish exclusively for them to eat — no sharing! The molting process demands a diet rich in protein and minerals, as well freedom from the stress of ensuring their brood's survival. And yes, stress is every bit as deleterious to a bird's health as it to people's.

Were all the sacrifices Oscar and Olivia made worth it? Absolutely! Take a look at this year's gorgeous, healthy, and perfectly feathered offspring!

But enough on birds molting. At this stage we are a rather unattractive, grumpy lot with low self-esteem and sex is absolutely the last thing on our minds, since no one would have us in this sorry state of dishabille.

So, now that sex is completely out of the question and totally gone from my mind, I find myself asking, "Do plants have sex?"

The answer is yes and no.

I'll explore that dichotomy next week.



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