For the Birds Radio Program: Chickadee Missing Its Tail, Part II

Original Air Date: Nov. 17, 2003 Rerun Dates: July 1, 2004

A chickadee missing its tail has been visiting Laura’s feeder; now the tail is growing back.

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A couple of weeks ago, I talked about a little chickadee coming to my feeder who had lost its tail. The entire tail was missing—probably grabbed by a predator—but the chickadee had escaped and survived and was coming regularly to my bird feeder. It’s not often that we can easily distinguish one chickadee from another, though chickadees themselves recognize each other easily.

My tailless chickadee is still coming, only now it’s not missing its tail anymore. That’s the best thing about losing feathers—they grow back. And they grow back surprisingly fast. Within 10 days, the tail had grown well over an inch long, meaning it’s growing well over 2 millimeters a day. I like to think that the mealworms I’ve been feeding my chickadees are helping the growth process, but even if I weren’t, that is simply how feathers grow. If a feather is broken, it stays broken until the next molting period begins, sometimes many months later. But if a feather is pulled out at the root, regrowth starts immediately. Each feather grows out of a little follicle in the skin. At first, the undeveloped feather looks like a pimple, and within a day or so emerges as a tiny grayish cone. The developing feathery vanes with their complex barbs and barbules remain entirely encased in a sheath at first. Developing feathers apparently make the skin feel rather itchy, so birds growing new feathers spend a lot of time preening. Their beaks and claws make the sheath disintegrate little by little, and as it flakes off, the newly-developed vanes unfurl.

How fast do feathers grow? As with my chickadee, they can grow from one to several millimeters a day. Of course, this normally doesn’t take too much of the bird’s energy—when birds molt, the new feathers emerge only a few at a time. Newly emerging feathers push out the old ones as they grow in. Usually the tail feathers emerge two by two, and the remaining fully-grown feathers hide the process, but with my chickadee, the new growth can be seen from day to day since all the feathers had been torn out at once. This does require a lot of energy and protein, so I’m sure a steady diet of mealworms is helping the process at least a bit.

Without a tail, a chickadee’s body is surprisingly spherical. Its neck is longer and thinner than we can see on the outside, but kept crooked in, and the fairly long neck feathers smooth out the contour. Minus the tail, a chickadee is about the size and shape of a golf ball. This one is still conspicuous because its tail is only about half as long as normal, but within another week or two will be full length, and I won’t be able to tell this chickadee from the others. Chickadees normally molt in late summer and fall, so these lost feathers were fairly new. They’ll last until next July or August. They’re looking good, and I’m glad I’ve been able to play at least a small part in their growth. Obviously a chickadee can survive without its tail, since this one has been flying well all along, but the tail does help with fine maneuvers, and obviously when a predator gets too close, the tail gives it something to grab while the rest of the chickadee flies away. Of course, with luck, that will never happen again, but it’s good to know the tail is there for just such an emergency.