Where have all the garden birds gone?

29 August 2019 | Posted in Charlotte Owen , Birds
Where have all the garden birds gone?
moulting robin © Roger Wilmshurst

By Charlotte Owen

WildCall Officer

You may have noticed that the birds have been a bit quiet lately.  After the cacophony of spring birdsong and the non-stop parenting of a busy breeding season, the garden can seem a little empty in late summer.  There’s a distinct lack of singing, the feeders are no longer crowded and the branches are bare - where have all the birds gone?

Thankfully, they haven’t gone far.  They’re just keeping a low profile while they undergo a late summer moult, with adults shedding their tired and tatty feathers to replace them with strong and glossy new ones, while this year’s fledglings moult into their adult plumage.  Adults can look particularly bedraggled by the end of the breeding season but once their parenting job is done, and while the weather is still mild, there is a window of opportunity to take time out and replenish themselves.  It takes about five weeks for a small bird to complete a full moult and during this period they can look incredibly scruffy.  Any that do visit the feeders may look quite unusual, from yellowish blue-tits to speckle-headed blackbirds and fluffy robins that seem to have been dragged through a hedge backwards. 

Beyond the obvious cosmetic changes, the annual moult presents a number of physical challenges.  It’s a big strain on a bird’s resources, requiring a great deal of energy and plenty of protein, so they tend to avoid any unnecessary exertion.  Shedding their downy layer of insulating feathers puts moulting birds at risk of catching a chill if night-time temperatures drop, and since their flight feathers must also be shed and regrown they are also more vulnerable to predation.  In most cases they don’t lose all of their flight feathers at once (ducks, geese and swans being the notable exceptions) so can still fly but may lack their usual speed and agility.  It also saps a lot more energy to fly without a full quota of feathers, so all things considered it’s sensible to stay out of sight.  It won’t be long before the moult is complete and the birds are back in force, keen to fatten up on autumn’s bounty.

Comments

  • Sally:

    29 Aug 2019 10:58:00

    That is interesting about the moult. Had thought the birds not so plentiful and that could explain why. Thank you

  • Elizabeth Hindson:

    29 Aug 2019 11:19:00

    Thank you for the piece on moulting birds. I have seen quite a few who are looking the worse for wear. I am looking forward to seeing them with their new plumage. Best wishes, Elizabeth

  • JOHN HUGO:

    29 Aug 2019 11:52:00

    I have noticed the odd Sparrow taken seeds from the BUDLIA bush FLOWERS that have gone to seed. At the same time as the BUTTERFLIES are feeding off the flowers that are still in bloom

  • Denise Pashley:

    29 Aug 2019 11:58:00

    I was at the Bull in Goring By Sea the other day. A Robin was singing!! It was wonderful

  • Frances Brook:

    29 Aug 2019 11:59:00

    I’d love to know where they go when they are staying out of sight.

  • Libi Pedder:

    29 Aug 2019 13:55:00

    Thanks for this very interesting feature, I do notice this phenomenon every year but I’m curious to know how & where they feed during this process – which requires maintaining a low profile & must be a considerable drain on energy?

  • Ziggy:

    29 Aug 2019 14:04:00

    Great article thanks, that explains why there are so many tatty tits at my feeder at the moment

  • SARAH:

    29 Aug 2019 15:34:00

    I had a fledgling Blackbird jump out of the hedge and land on my foot while I was putting cherries out for the birds earlier in the month. Since then he has made gentle cupping noises from behind a bush whenever he sees me in the garden so I’ve been dropping a couple of cherries next to it and watching him feed. I’ve seen his feathers change from speckled brown to brown with black bits but I haven’t seen him for a few days. This morning I saw a female Sparrowhawk take a black bird. I hope it wasn’t my fledgling!

  • Nick Warwick:

    29 Aug 2019 15:57:00

    Yes Robins really are irrepressible when it comes to song. Have been surprised to hear one singing twice only just into 4th week of August — and they are of course often a lone voice on Christmas Day of course.

  • Libi Pedder:

    29 Aug 2019 16:29:00

    Thanks for this very interesting feature, I do notice this phenomenon every year but I’m curious to know how & where they feed during this process – which requires maintaining a low profile & must be a considerable drain on energy?

  • Liz Edbrooke:

    29 Aug 2019 18:31:00

    yes, where do the birds go when they are hiding out and moulting? It would be good know, then perhaps I can keep my cat away from them! I’ve heard a bird singing most beautiful in my garden the last couple of weeks. Not sure what it is and I can’t see it. Sounds a bit like a small black bird. Could be a robin may be but strange it’s just started to sing daily at this time of year. I have two gold finches that come regularly am and pm to eat niger seeds. Their feathers still seem most beautiful and not scruffy. May be they don’t moult?

  • Christine Byrne:

    29 Aug 2019 20:15:00

    Thank you so much for putting my mind at rest. I was wondering where all my beautiful birds that visit me for food had gone. I was so upset to see feathers in my garden. In the last week I have seen one Robin, one blue tit and 4of this years fledglings. I look forward to seeing all my friends again soon, my garden is so quiet.

  • Julia Courtney:

    29 Aug 2019 21:13:00

    Thank you for raising this matter. Three years ago I was devastated when my beloved ‘pet’ blackbird stopped singing and I found a handful of black feathers on the lawn. The lovely people at RSPB Wildlife Helpline suggested that as there was no down, blood or bones present, he had probably gone into moult just as you describe. Fortunately, two months later I found they were right!

  • Ron Marsh:

    29 Aug 2019 22:12:00

    Our sparrows and starlings keep coming in droves and most young starlings have mainly adult feathers now. Goldfinches carry on singing and eating as usual. The young Crows have looked like vultures with their feather free necks – but they have never seemed to have acquired a full plumage right from the start many weeks ago. I can’t figure out why that should be..

  • Libi Pedder:

    30 Aug 2019 10:35:00

    Thanks for this very interesting feature, I do notice this phenomenon every year but I’m curious to know how & where they feed during this process – which requires maintaining a low profile & must be a considerable drain on energy?

  • Peter Gasson:

    30 Aug 2019 16:22:00

    I’ve had flocks of Goldfinches in the garden feeding on sunflower hearts for years and I’ve noticed that this time of year new fledglings don’t have the bright red cap and they seem to be breeding later every year

  • Beryl:

    01 Sep 2019 16:29:00

    Many thanks for for most interesting article, like so many other bird lovers, I wondered why my usual feathered visitors had decreased in numbers. I shall look forward to their return.

  • Rosie Lubach:

    29 Sep 2019 16:28:00

    So pleased with your article re birds moulting. I moved to my house 3 yrs ago. No trees ,bees, butterflies and minimal birds. I’m creating a non chemical garden and planting as much as I can afford. Birds did visit but that dropped off of late. I felt something was wrong but you’ve given me an explanation. I want to show my neighbours that success may be achieved without poisons, slug pellets etc. Not easy though. Cost of trees is high and I need a few for birds to shelter.

  • Brenda:

    03 Nov 2019 23:19:00

    So glad to read your article,, it explains why we haven’t seen the blackbirds, thankyou.

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