molting cardinal - northern cardinal bird

Bald Cardinals

bald cardinal at feeder

What is Wrong With That Cardinal?

They’re baaaack!  I am talking about those very ugly bald Cardinals coming in to my backyard bird feeder and in my tree.  You may have seen one or two bald Cardinals yourself or even a bald Blue Jay.  And it is not as pretty a sight to see as compared to the brilliant red on the Cardinal or the vibrant blue on the Blue Jay.  I see this happen every year about this time sometimes in my yard sometimes over at the nearby park where I walk.  It just tells me that summer and breeding season for these birds is coming to an end.

Of course there are some people being unaware of the real reason, who think that these poor bald birds are sick and/or dying.  They are wrong though because bald Cardinals and bald Blue Jays are pretty common to see this time of year and it has to do with molting.

 

What is Molting?

Molting is the natural shedding of feathers in order to produce new ones.   A feather is  pretty much like your fingernails and your hair, both are made up of the protein keratin.   When you damage your hair or nails they generally get replaced by new growth.  It is just the same with bird feathers.  When a bird damages one of its feathers,  or its feathers become warn, they have to be replaced, so molting is a result.

This process usually happens over time with the bird losing its feathers a few at a time.  Yet some, like the Cardinal and Blue Jay, may lose an entire set of feathers such as on the head at once.

Most birds will lose its wing feathers one at a time from each wing and new feathers will replace them before another feather is lost.  The tail feathers are lost a few at a time as well which enables the birds to fly during the process.  The birds are also losing feathers on their bodies at the same time and can make the bird look pretty weird and ugly.

Molting varies by the species of the bird too.  Some like the chickadee will do an entire  molt just one time in a year while say a tanager will do one complete molt after nesting time then a partial molt right before breeding again.  This partial molt on the male (the female also has a partial molt) gives the bird its bright feathers that help attract the female.

 

American goldfinchWhen Do Birds Molt?

Molting has to do with hormonal changes in the birds which is brought on by the different seasons.  When birds molt in the Fall their regrowth will be in their non-breeding plumage which makes them more dull looking.  Take for example male Goldfinches.  I have noticed that they are starting to turn that pale yellow or grayish color again.  That is a sign that they are molting and getting into their winter plumage.  They do not need the bright colors at this time when they are not trying to attract females.   Then in the Spring once they have molted some of their feathers again, they will have that bright yellow appearance again.  Time to breed!

NOTE:  If  a bird loses an entire feather then it will begin to grow immediately, it won’t wait until the bird molts.

 

How Long Do Birds Molt?

The molting process can take up to six weeks with some species of birds.  During this time birds do not have as much energy.   In fact, you will probably notice that the birds become less active during this time and may not be seen as much as they conserve energy while their feathers are being replaced.  However, they will feed more to compensate for this loss of energy.

 

Why The Baldness on Cardinals and Blue Jays?

Some people claim that the baldness on Cardinals and Blue Jays in particular, is due to the birds having mites or parasites which causes them to lose all of their feathers at once.  This clearly is possible but it also may be because it is just the way that particular bird goes through the molting process.  There have been studies where two cardinals living in the same place molted differently.  One lost all of its head feathers all at once and the other one did not.  The following year both birds molted differently from the year prior.

Good News!  New feathers start coming in within a week or so which means that the baldness will not last that long.

In Conclusion

You may happen to see a bald Cardinal or a bald Blue Jay at your backyard feeder or in your tree this time of year.   While they are definitely not pretty when they look like this it just means that they are going through their normal molting process which is replacing old, warn out feathers.  Not every bird species loses their feathers all at once like this but they will lose them gradually so they will not be as noticeable.

The wing feathers are lost one at a time on each wing with new feathers replacing them before another one is lost.  The tail feathers are lost a few at a time.   This is to enable the birds to be able to fly while they are molting.

Some of  the feathers in the rest of their body are being lost at this same time making the birds look pretty warn and sickly.   Added to this, when birds are going through the molting process, they are not as active, not as aggressive, and may not be seen as much in your backyard.  This is so they conserve energy while their new feathers are growing in.  The result is a bird with healthy feathers which is important for flying and their overall survival.

So if you happen to see one of these ugly birds right now just remember that in about a week or two, they will be back to their normal bird selves. Thank goodness for that right!?

If you have any comments about this please feel free to provide them below.  I would love to hear from you!

Happy Birding!     

Posted in Backyard Birds.

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