We Get Pretty By Wearing Out

Lapland longspur, Oct 2018 (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

9 March 2021

If you saw lapland longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus) in the fields this winter you know how hard they are to notice, even when abundant. Unlike horned larks that are visible when they walk, longspurs barely move while foraging for seeds in low brown vegetation. They match the ground.

Two lapland longspurs foraging in a field, February 2021 (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

To achieve this camouflage, they molt in July and August while on their breeding grounds, then head south to spend the winter in fields across the northern U.S. and as far south as Texas.

Lapland longspur, October 2018 (photo by Lauri Shaffer)

During the winter, their feathers get older but instead of looking tattered they show more color. Here’s one in mid-January.

Lapland longspur, Illinois, 16 Jan 2016 (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

By the time they reach their arctic breeding grounds in late May the males are especially gorgeous.

Male lapland longspur, Alaska Maritime NWR (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They don’t molt to become this beautiful. Instead the tips of lapland longspurs’ feathers wear off to reveal gorgeous colors just below.

It would be nice if we humans got prettier as we wore out. Instead we just look ragged.

(photos by Lauri Shaffer and from Wikimedia Commons)

p.s. European starlings use the same feather strategy.

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