While this looks rather like a sea urchin, or some other mysterious spiny undersea creature, it’s actually the back of poor Marvin’s neck.
Mr. Walker, as you can see below, has a similar situation going on.
It’s moulting season — that time when our local crows shed their old feathers, worn out by a year of constant use — to grow their very own shiny new wardrobe.
The new and waterproof feathers usually arrive just in time for the winter rain and wind — a miraculous feat, but an itchy and uncomfortable few weeks for the moult participants.
Apart from looking like low budget pirate movie extras, the whole moulting and regeneration process is physically and psychologically taxing for birds. Luckily the fledglings are pretty independent by now, as mom and dad’s supply of patience is even shorter than usual.
The young ones seem to instinctively end the summer-long begging for food just before the moulting crankiness sets in, though I suppose the odd parental peck may also have something to do with it.
Those “sea urchin” spikes on the back of Marvin’s back are new feathers poking through the skin. Curious as to what exactly is going on, I looked up a few articles about new feather growth.
Apparently these little barbs are called “pin feathers” — I imagine because the poor bird feels like a pin cushion. They’re also called “blood feathers” because they have a blood supply and nerves, making them super sensitive and delicate ( empathetic wince.) They look even more spiky because they have a protective keratin* sheath around them.
Even Marvin’s new fledgling, the lovely Lucky, can’t escape the process. You can see here the “reverse mullet” effect of the missing feathers.
Another moulting fashion phenomenon is the “straggly beard” effect caused by the temporary loss of throat feathers.
For a glossary of crow Fall Fashion terms, see my blog post from 2018 — Red Hot Fall Fashion Tips
Moulting usually begins with an overall fluffy, almost glamorous look as first feathers start to float away …
… and ends up like this, with even tiny “eyebrow” and “nostril” feathers going AWOL …
The remaining feathers are dull, and often display moody shades of sepia, grey, indigo and mauve.
The only real comfort to be found before the new finery comes in is in the loving attention of family members, like Mavis allopreening Marvin in the video below. I like to think she’s simultaneously offering words of encouragement — “no, honestly dear, you don’t really look THAT bad …”
All in all, it’s a trying time of year to be a crow, but luckily they, as a species, seem to have the chutzpah to carry off whatever outlandish look nature sees fit to bestow upon them.
As with all avant-garde fashion statements, confidence is key.
*Keratin is a lightweight protein. Different types of keratin form everything from feathers to fingernails, hooves to horns.
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4 thoughts on “The Unbearable Itchiness of Moulting”
Thanks for another wonderful crow story! I’m very glad to see that Lucky is part of that! Caw!
Thanks for this, June. We have been watching the moult for a while and take note of the accumulation of feathers on the ground. Your description makes us empathize with them in their discomfort.
As always June, you make a cyclical event in the life of a crow hilarious. Just what I needed this morning to start my day.
Anybody who has dealt with a teething baby can appreciate what birds go through during a moult. Emerging pin feathers are akin to teeth pushing up through gum tissue. Unlike a toddler who might do a lot of crying when teething, I find that birds in my care become morosely silent. Even the offer of special treats will be rejected. Nothing like a partially bald, goofy-looking bird trying to look aloof and scornful when rebuffing the human trying to make him/her feel better🤪