Breeding Plumage – Which Birds Molt in Spring?

breeding plumage

A male western tanager in his breeding plumage. Photo via Flickr.

Some Rocky Mountain birds molt in the spring, which means getting new colorful breeding plumage. Here are some of the common birds that do and don’t do it.

Spring is in the air and for many animals that means love and making babies.  Many birds have already migrated back to the Rockies or are still here and enjoying the warmer days.  Males are scoping out the best territories and getting ready to find a female.  This means that they need to be looking their best.  Surprisingly, a lot of birds do not change their coloring in the spring.

What Is Molting and How Often Do Birds Molt?

For birds, molting is when they replace some or all of their feathers with new ones.  The two most common times of year for birds to molt is either before or after the breeding season.  Before the breeding season some birds undergo a partial molt to acquire their colorful breeding plumage.

Read this old post for more information about molting in birds.

Why Do Birds Get Breeding Plumage In Spring?

Birds, mainly the males will molt their dull, winter coloring and grow new, bright feathers in the spring.  The males do this because springtime is when a lot of birds are looking for mates and trying to make babies.

For many birds, the males that have the brightest, most colorful feathers will attract the females.  Scientists guess that females choose the males with the most colorful breeding plumage because that is a sign of good health.  Males that can grow such nice feathers must be the most healthy and would be the best mate.

Which Birds Have Their Breeding Plumage In The Spring?

I am not going to list every bird that acquires breeding plumage in the spring, but here are some of the common ones in the Rocky Mountains.

Mallard – Male mallards will undergo a partial molt and grow their breeding or alternate plumage in the early spring.

Western Tanager – the male molts into a beautiful coloring in the spring.

breeding plumage

A male lark bunting. Photo via Flickr.

Lark Bunting – the male and female look similar in winter, but in the summer the male has a bright white patch on its wing.

breeding plumage

A male goldfinch looking his best. Photo via Flickr.

American Goldfinch – in the summer the male has bright yellow feathers as opposed to winter when only his face and shoulders are yellow.

The following birds molt once a year and do not molt into a breeding plumage – chickadees, hawks, hummingbirds, jays, owls, and swallows.