To achieve greater understanding of the full annual cycles of birds, it is critical to describe the spatial nature of little-understood phases. One of the least understood aspects of avian annual cycles is the ecology of molt: the periodic replacement of feathers. While work on the spatial nature of molt in migratory passerines has increasingly found incidences of species and populations completing molt during migration, this work has been limited entirely to prebasic flight feather molt. We examined the prevalence and progression of contour feather molt in a migratory songbird, the Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus), during spring stopover. We found that 98% of birds exhibited a partial prealternate molt during stopover, primarily in the head region. Furthermore, molt intensity peaked in the middle of the migration period and was negatively associated with fat score. This is the first evidence in the passerine literature of an obligate prealternate molt completed during migration, which is in many ways similar to the molt strategy of a variety of shorebirds (Families Charadriidae and Scolopacidae). These findings could prove crucial to understanding the constraints on spring migration in this declining species. Furthermore, we argue that molt schedules such as those of the Rusty Blackbird and shorebirds should be referred to as “prealternate molt-migration,” broadening the traditional definition of molt-migration beyond prebasic flight feather molt.
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