Recently, Michigan experienced two days of unseasonably warm weather- 85 degrees in April. As predictable as the sun rising every morning, the phone calls from frantic canary owners began shortly afterwards- "my bird is losing feathers and has stopped singing! What should I do?"
Molting season is one of the largest sources of concern for many pet canary owners as during this period most male canaries stop singing. Unfortunately, it is also poorly understood by many pet owners.
Birds are biologically hardwired to respond to certain environmental factors by molting, which is a 6-10 week process of replacing all the feathers on their bodies. Feathers become worn and tattered with constant use over time and nature has provided for this by causing birds to molt once a year- usually in the summer. This allows a bird in the wild to produce a new set of feathers to replace the old during a period of time when good food sources tend to be at their highest levels and before the hardships of the winter season begin. Birds which are a year old or older will lose all of their feathers including the longer feathers of the wings and tail. The first molt of a bird’s life occurs at about 6-8 weeks and involves only the smaller feathers of the body.
The molting process is orderly- the feathers are lost in a predetermined pattern beginning with the upper chest area and working through different symmetrical parts of the body until reaching the top of the head. When tiny white pinfeathers (so named because they look like small pins- these are developing feathers which are still wrapped in a keratinous sheath) appear on the head, the molt is approaching completion. The process can take as few as six weeks or as long as ten weeks. A shorter molt is better as this period is very stressful physically for a bird. Molts which continue for longer than twelve weeks are a sign of a health or environmental problem.
A healthy pet bird kept in the proper environment will only molt one time a year. Birds which are ill will sometimes go into what is called a "soft molt" in which they will lose small feathers year round- this is an issue which should be addressed by an avian veterinarian. The most common cause of unseasonable molting, however is exposure to one or more molting triggers- heat, draft, and increased hours of light. Small birds such as canaries are especially susceptible to changes in their environment and the conditions found in many pet homes result in unnecessary stress produced by frequent molting. Birds, unlike cats or dogs, must be kept in fairly controlled environments with a set period of lighting and protection from changes in temperature fluctuations and drafts- warm or cold.
The ideal environment for a pet canary is one in which he is exposed only to natural day length, is kept at a constant temperature of somewhere between 50-72 degrees, and in an area completely free of drafts.
I receive a number of phone calls after the Christmas holiday season about molting birds. In almost every case, it turns out that the bird in question is kept in a dining or living room and due to the holiday season has been exposed to more hours of light than that to which it is accustomed because its owners stay awake longer than usual or entertain later. If this situation occurs, simply remove the canary from the area at the time he normally goes to sleep and place him in a darkened bedroom or other area where he will not be exposed to light. (Even the flickering light from a television can be enough to keep him awake.) If this is not possible, cover the cage with a dark cloth which is heavy enough to prevent light from penetrating.
I also often hear from people who have gone on vacation and left a bird with someone who is on a different schedule from the family. Even if the bird receives the same number of hours of light, it is important that he remain on his normal schedule. This can easily be accomplished with lights on timers.
Any change in lighting must be made gradually and with the understanding that it could cause a molt. My birds- and every line of canaries is different- are maintained at 9 ½ hours of light except during show and breeding season. During show season the hours of light are increased to 10- 10 ½ hours depending on how they are singing. Breeding season is brought on in part by increasing the length of day in 15 minute increments twice per week until the birds reach a maximum of 13 ½ to 14 hours of light each day. After breeding is finished, the light is increased suddenly to 15 hours for a day or two and then dropped to 9 ½ hours all at once. Within a week, every bird in the room will begin to molt. The one or two older birds which lag behind will have a tail feather or two pulled and that will generally bring them into the molt as well. This certainly does not work for every breeder- some canary breeds (and even individual birds) require more light to breed and thus would resist molting at higher day lengths. This does show how sensitive the canary is to light, however.
If a canary is taken from a place where he receives 10 hours of light and placed in a home where he suddenly is exposed to 15 hours, chances are excellent that he will molt. The same is true of the reverse. Sometimes even a half hour difference will cause a problem, so a new pet owner should inquire about a new bird’s schedule before bringing him home.
Generally, male canaries kept as pets should awaken with the sun and go to sleep with the sun- this lighting schedule will provide the easiest way for a pet owner to avoid unseasonable molting problems.
The second largest problem pet bird owners have is heat- too much warmth will almost invariably cause a canary to molt. Remember that despite hundreds of years of domestication, a canary is still a wild bird in biological terms with all the hardwired switches intact. When his body is exposed to warmth, a canary’s brain screams "MOLT!" Whether this is increasing warmth or an environment that is always kept too warm, the effect is largely the same.
Sometimes it simply isn’t possible to avoid keeping a bird in a warm environment, such as during the summer. Often, though, unseasonable molting is brought on by keeping a bird near a ceiling (which can be several degrees warmer than nearer the floor), close to furnace vents, in a warm kitchen, or near an electric space heater.
A bird which is kept in front of a window must always have an area of his cage where he can escape direct sunlight to avoid becoming overheated- simply covering a portion of the cage with a cloth will suffice. On very hot, sunny days moving the cage away from the window entirely will be helpful as the sun’s rays are intensified by the glass.
The third problem that can cause a pet bird to molt is exposure to a draft- hot, warm or cold. Some drafts are obvious, such as those coming in from a window or a heating or air conditioning vent. Others are less so- air blowing from a fan can be redirected off of objects in the room directly onto the bird. Birds need fresh air, so an open window is good as long as the bird is well protected.
A male canary will most likely not sing as long as he is molting and for a short period after he appears to have stopped. Singing in the canary is determined in large part by hormone levels, which are decreased during the molt. If the bird has received good nutrition and is healthy he will certainly begin to sing again.
The molting season is an excellent time to play recorded canary song CDs and cassette tapes as it is theorized that canaries learn new songs best during this period.
There are many ideas about ways to stop a molt once it has begun, but it is very difficult to accomplish. Battling against a bird’s biological nature is a fight which is lost before it has begun! The best way to avoid untimely molting is to manage the environment so that it doesn’t occur