Bald-headed Cardinal

March 18, 2011 | Greg Dodge

Northern cardinal singing from a cypress next to the boardwalk (2/16/11).

While strolling down the boardwalk into the Wetlands you may have heard the cheery song of a cardinal. If you had stopped to admiral the bright red bird singing from the bare-limbed Bald Cypress on your right, you might have noticed that the bird was balding, or missing feathers from around its eyes and part of its forehead.

A closer look at the cardinal reveals that the feathers around it eyes and crown are missing (2/16/11).

The first two photos of the cardinal were shot in mid February. The baldness has progressed since then.

I usually see this kind of feather loss in cardinals during summer, but I first noticed this bird’s problem in February when it began singing from the trees along the boardwalk.

I don’t know why, but this type of feather loss seems more prevalent in cardinals. It may simply be that other birds stay under cover when they experience feather loss such as this. I occasionally see Blue Jays and other birds with no feathers on their heads, but mostly cardinals.

Cardinals usually molt in summer, as do most song birds, long after the nesting season has begun, so its not a normal molt that’s taking place on this bald-headed bird. Besides, molting birds don’t loose all of their feathers at once, it’s a gradual process where the old feathers are pushed out by the new feathers that are coming in. It’s a systematic process.

Most birds do look rather ragged during the summer molt though. But you don’t see a bunch of naked birds running around devoid of feathers during the summer. And, remember, they can’t fly without feathers so they would literally be running around, not flying around, if they lost all of their feathers at once.

A little more than two weeks later the balding is more pronounced (3/4/11).

So what exactly is causing the feather loss?

The balding on this bird was not caused by hard-living and age, as in my case, but from mites or lice (I’ve had mites and lice before, but not avian mites or lice). I don’t know whether the feather loss is a direct result of the infestation or from the bird literally scratching the feathers off of its head due to the itching caused by the parasites. If you’ve ever had chiggers, you might be able to understand how that could happen.

One month after I first noticed the cardinal’s feather deficit (3/15/11).

Why is the feather loss only on the head? Another I don’t know, but I have and idea. The head is just about the only place that the bird can’t reach with its bill to pick off parasites. The bird can certainly scratch its head with its feet though. And as we all know, scratching feels good, but doesn’t get rid of the problem. It usually makes it worse.

I was a bit worried about this bird. Female cardinals choose their mates either by the song the male delivers, its appearance, or a combination of the two. A bright red bird with a nice pointy crest and contrasting black area around its face probably looks pretty attractive to a female cardinal. Our bird lacks those physical characteristics. Obviously, this male cardinal can’t see itself so it doesn’t know what it looks like, but it does keep right on singing, and quiet sweetly I might add.

As I mentioned earlier, this feather loss usually occurs during the summer, long after mates are chosen, nests are built, and young are begging for grub, so you’re stuck with whoever it was that you chose as a mate by the time the feathers fall out (or are scratched out). At that point though, little else matters except for keeping the baby birds fed and protected. They are, both of them, very dedicated parents.

Yesterday, I saw a female in our singing male’s vicinity on more than one occasion, so his singing may be paying off.

I’ll keep an eye on this bird and let you know what happens.

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