Occasionally you see a bird without tail feathers. Chances are the bird lost feathers instead of its life by a lucky escape from a predator. When will the feathers grow back? Is replacement immediate or does it take place with the next molt?
A member of the birding email list BirdChat asked that question a few days ago. Several other list members provided the answer: the feathers grow back ASAP. The delay would come only if the attack caused wounds that needed to heal.
Tail feathers would be replaced automatically in one of the bird’s seasonal molts. But they’re so important to flight control that regrowth begins immediately.
Any waiting period as wounds heal is apt to be short because the bird probably will die first. If the attack draws blood as well as feathers the wounds are infection-prone. Predators’ claws almost always contain septic material – bacteria – that are highly likely to create a fatal infection.
One BirdChat responder told a great story. A birder in England and a friend were using a large live trap to capture birds for banding. A Eurasian Collared-Dove lacking tail feathers was caught. Banded and released, it walked back into the trap. A pattern developed. Released in the evening to go to roost, the dove returned to the trap every morning until tail feathers had been fully replaced. The bird seemed to understand that in the trap it was safe from predators, particularly, I imagine, the one that had removed its tail.
ANOTHER BIRDCHAT NOTE: A bird bander wrote that the itinerant finches we see at our feeders are mostly new day to day. The redpolls and goldfinches you feed today will move on, being replaced by others of the same species. He wrote that he had determned this via the ID bands he attaches to bird legs. I have no confirmation of this behavior (the birds', not his). It might explain, though, why we have a couple of dozen redpolls one day, none the next, and Pine Siskins on catch-as-catch-can basis. Goldfinches are here all the time, for whatever reason. Yesterday I did see a redpoll with a splotch of white on its back, a bit of albinism. We'll see if it returns.
AND, fellow StarTrib columnist Val Cunningham wrote today to say that chickadees in her St. Paul neighborhood are beginning to sing their spring song -- feee-beee, high on the fee note, low on the bee. Chickadees were doing it here this morning as I filled feeders. It's not this sudden burst of heat -- all the way into the low teens -- that has given them voice. Birds respond to the increasng amount of daylight at this time of year to put them into the spring mood.