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David Sibley: How birds can change color without molting

In fall, the fresh plumage of a male Red-winged Blackbird appears patterned and cryptic. Artwork by David Allen Sibley.

Most of the dramatic seasonal changes in a bird’s appearance are the result of molt — that is, the replacement of old feathers with new.

A male Scarlet Tanager replaces the drab greenish feathers of winter with intense red in spring, and then molts back to greenish in the fall. All birds molt at least once a year (usually in late summer), and many species, like Scarlet Tanager, add a second molt in late winter that gives rise to the bright colors we enjoy in spring.

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David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016), and What It’s Like to Be a Bird (2020). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

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