Budgie Feathers

What is a budgie without it's budgie feathers? A pink, scrawny, funny looking little thing. Though not for long as an adult budgie without them would not survive on its own. Feathers enable budgies to regulate their temperature, preventing overheating and chilling. They provide a degree of waterproofing and physical protection and are used in courtship and communication. Seeing as they are so important, let's learn a bit more about them.

Budgie feathers are made of keratin, which is a type of protein and the same stuff that makes up the budgies skin, beak and toenails. A budgie will have about 2000 -3000 feathers. There are two basic types; vaned feathers, and the down feathers which lie underneath them. Vaned feathers are all the outer ones with a stiff central shaft, whilst down feathers are the smaller fluffy grey/white ones that lie beneath the vaned feathers. These are the ones float around and get stuck in everything during the budgies moult... Vaned ones come in several types including flight, tail and the contour feathers that cover the budgies body. They come in several different shapes and sizes but have the same basic layout.

The parts of a vaned feather

1. Vane
the section of the feather with the feathery bits.
2. Rachis - the main shaft
3. Barb - thin branches that are attached to the rachis. Each of these has many more tiny branches coming off it called barbules. The barbules hook onto each other to hold the feathers shape. These are the bits that become a mess when you rub a feather up the wrong way! See the image below for a closeupof the barbs and barbules.
4. Afterfeather - a downy section of feather at the base of the vane.
5. Hollow shaft, calamus - the section of the feather without barbs that is attached to the skin.

Close up of barbs and barbules

As you can see in the close up, the barbs look like tiny shafts with the barbules coming off them. The barbules have tiny hooks that they hold onto each other with, keeping the feathers shape. When a feather gets messed up the budgie will run its beak down it to align the barbs again so they hook back onto each other.... isn't that simply amazing!

Down feathers have no hooks so the barbs and barbule float loosely, creating a fluffy feather. These budgie feathers trap the air close to its body where it helps insulate it. When your budgie gets cold it will fluff itself up to trap more air under its feathers. When it is hot it will pull its feathers down tight to sqeeze out the air.

Feather tracts

One of the things that I find quite fascinating is that feathers do not grow evenly over the budgies whole body. They only grow in certain places, called feather tracts. This is most obvious on chicks, where you can see the feathers as they are growing out. You can see large bald areas, which disappear as soon as your budgie feathers open out. The image below shows where the feathers actually grow.

Wing feathers

Your budgies wing feathers are very important and, of course, beautiful! They provide your pet with its only real means of protection; flight. They can also use their beak (as most budgie owners learn at some painful point!) but if it needs to use it, then it has already been caught by a predator and it is probably too late… So the wing feathers are extremely important to your pet, providing them with a feeling of security that is lost if you trim them. For this reason I would always try to find a different option to doing this.

The main flight feathers are connected to the bones of the wing by connective tissue, whilst the other feathers are connected to muscles just below the skin surface.  This allows the budgie to raise or lower the body feathers to regulate temperature, show off to a friend etc.

The picture below shows the layout of your budgies wing feathers to give you an idea of the layout.

1 - Axillaries
2 - Marginal underwing coverts
3 - Lesser underwing coverts
4 - Median underwing coverts (Secondary coverts)
5 - Greater underwing coverts (Secondary coverts)
6 - Carpal joint
7 - Lesser underwing primary coverts
8 - Greater underwing primary coverts
9 - Secondaries
10 - Primaries

Pin feathers

When a budgie feather is moulted, another grows up in its place. When it first emerges from the skin it is encased in a waxy sheath. As it grows out this sheath breaks down, or is preened or rubbed off by the budgie, allowing the feather to open out. You will most often see this around the face and head of your budgie. They look like little spikes, last for a few days and are called pin feathers. You may find your budgie wants lots of head rubs when they have pin feathers, I think they must be uncomfortable.

How about a little more information on moulting?

Moulting - aka the moult

When a budgie feather begins growing it emerges as a pin feather, as described above. At this stage the shaft of the feather is a living thing, filled with tissue and nutrients and will bleed if broken.  However, once the feather is fully grown it's blood supply is cut off and it becomes dead, in the same way as your hair and nails are dead, and the shaft is hollow and empty. As it is dead, it cannot be healed if it is damaged, so birds discard their feathers regularly and grow new ones in a process called moulting.

This process is triggered by hormonal changes and triggered by the seasons.  An important consideration is that growing new feathers takes a lot of energy and nutrients, so you don't want to be doing it whilst breeding, for example. Whilst moulting your budgie will need extra goodness in it's diet, especially protein.

Budgies can moult once a year, though some moult every six months and some seem to moult slowly throughout the whole year. Youngsters undergo a partial moult at about 12 weeks, when they lose their baby forehead barring and get the clear white or yellow forehead of an adult. At this time they may also develop an iris ring.

Some budgies tend to throw their feathers of quickly and end up looking ragged and scruffy and unwell (as they will also be feeling grumpy so may be hunched and irritable) then grow new feathers and be through their moult in a matter of a couple of weeks.  Others do it slowly and you only notice the occasional missing feather as they take several weeks to complete it.

Moulting should not leave your budgie with large bald patches, that would indicate that they have another problem and would need to see a vet to pin point the issue and treat it appropriately.

Moulting is a big deal to your bird as it is energy and nutrient depleting. Growing new feathers can use up up to 25% of the nutrients your budgie is eating, so they really need you to provide extra at this time so they can produce healthy, beautiful feathers without becoming depleted and run down. This is also why you should not breed a bird whilst it is moulting. How can it provide enough nutrients for healthy eggs and chicks if it is using so much of it own energy growing a pretty new suit!

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