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Why most birds look their best in fall plumage

A FAMILIAR BIRD TRANSFORMED: A female American Robin in worn plumage (left, typical of July) and fresh plumage (right, typical of October). Art by David Sibley

If I asked you to name the season when birds are looking their best, I suspect you would answer “spring.” That’s when most species are in their most showy and colorful breeding plumage. But I would like to make a case for fall as the season when birds are actually at their most beautiful.

Spring birds certainly capture the headlines with their bright colors and contrasting patterns. Birds like buntings, warblers, and tanagers have just returned to their nesting territories and use their brilliant color to show off for mates and rivals. The beauty of fall birds is more subtle — delicate shadings of gray and buff, crisp pale edges, all feathers new and unblemished.

Almost all birds molt in late summer, replacing their worn-out breeding-season feathers for a whole new set as they head into winter. Some of the feathers being replaced are a full year old, and after all of that time, and a grueling summer of nesting and raising young, a bird can look pretty ragged. Maybe it’s partly that contrast that makes fall birds so appealing as they transform from the worn-out “threadbare” feathers of summer to a full set of brand-new feathers.

The beauty of fall birds is more subtle — delicate shadings of gray and buff, crisp pale edges, all feathers new and unblemished.

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Most species have no need for showy plumage through the winter and instead have colors that help them stay hidden from predators — shades of brown, gray, and olive. It takes a good close view to really appreciate their beauty, the delicate markings of individual feathers, and the intricate patterns formed by groups of feathers.

Take some time to admire the perfection of plumage of familiar birds this fall. They will never look better than right now.

What to look for as birds molt their worn out feathers

This article was first published in the September/October 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe now.

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