24 July 2014

Accidental Versus Deliberate Feather Replacement

As more juveniles of all our species begin to appear in the next weeks, it's important to bear in mind that some feathers are replaced "accidentally" while others "deliberately" by traditional molts.

In the first stages of juvenile feather growth, some 1st basic feathers may grow out weak, defective, or even be tugged at by adults. These feathers are dropped, adventitiously. Take for instance this hatch year Ring-billed with a renewed mid-primary:

Ring-billed Gull (1st cycle) with adult-like primary flight feather. Chicago, IL. 05 Nov 2011.
First cycle Ring-billeds don't begin molting their primaries until May of their second calendar year via the 2nd prebasic molt. This adult-like feather has replaced a juvenile primary that was dropped "accidentally". As a rule, most of our gulls in the northern hemisphere retain their flight feathers, including rectrices, until early spring of their 2nd calendar year. Franklin's and Sabine's Gulls, which are our only "true" transequatorial migrants, are exceptions.

This is not to say that hatch-year gulls shouldn't show new, adult-like, gray feathers. Many deliberately replace their feathers via a strategic molt soon after leaving their nest site. For example, here's a recently fledged juvenile Ring-billed showing a couple of gray upperwing coverts:

Ring-billed (juvenile). Tinley Park, IL. 23 July 2014.
Hatch-year Ring-billeds begin their prealternate molts (or possibly preformative molts?) as early as late July, usually beginning with their scapulars and some with upperwing coverts. This relatively quick replacement of juvenile feathers is said to occur for two reasons: 1) Ample food supply, and, 2) The demand for a more rugged and stronger set of feathers that will be needed in the upcoming winter.

Some of our gulls replace most or all of their scapulars via a prealternate (or preformative) molt in their hatch year, like these individuals:

California Gull (1st cycle) with replaced, gray, scapulars. New Buffalo, MI. Oct 2012.
Ring-billed (1st cycle) with replaced scapulars, some upperwing coverts AND a few upper tertials. Chicago, IL. Oct 2012.
Bonaparte's Gull (1st cycle) with replaced scapulars. Chicago, IL. Oct 2010.
Note that the gray greater and median coverts on the Bonaparte's above are not preformative feathers. These are juvenile feathers that were originally grown as gray. This is a variable trait found in a number of species. One example that comes to mind are the silvery gray-tinged greater coverts of some Ring-billeds.

Ring-billed Gull (1st cycle) with extensive gray on juvenile greater coverts. Chicago, IL. 04 July 2013.
An extreme example of juveniles that begin with a sizable percentage of their upperparts showing adult-like gray, are kittiwakes. Take this Black-legged Kittiwake, for instance:

Black-legged Kittiwake (1st cycle) with gray juvenile upperwing coverts and scapulars. Marseilles, IL. Dec 2013.
Most gulls that show gray on their backs acquire that color through a second generation of feathers by molt, making 1st winter kittiwakes an interesting case.

Knowing which feathers are supposed to be replaced "when" is lots of fun to monitor and observe throughout the year. Fortunately, gulls and their feather tracts are large enough, and usually cooperative enough, for us to study in the field with some ease.