Solving the mystery of what causes bald cardinals

Nancy Kincaid of Charleston, W.Va. writes, “My husband and I feed birds and squirrels in our backyard, and we have a special male cardinal we have fed for the last two years. He and his mate have raised many young during this time, and we have enjoyed watching them grow and visit our feeders.

“This male cardinal watches for us and flies to our deck railing for peanuts and almonds. My question is, why does he have no feathers on his head and neck — just black skin? He has lost these feathers each of the last two summers, and they seem to grow back by winter. Can you explain our bald cardinal?”

Common

I’ve seen this a few times myself, and it’s one of the more pathetic sights to greet a backyard birder. Cardinals are normally robust and commanding in their brilliant crimson plumage. But every summer I get reports of “bald” cardinals (and sometimes other birds, too).

The descriptions range from birds with merely “unkempt or scruffy looking heads” to “miniature vultures.” Based on my experience, the mini-vulture description is spot on.

Of course, everyone asks what’s wrong with these birds. I’ve always attributed the condition to a bad case of ectoparasites — mites and/or bird lice that actually eat feathers.

Possibilities. Since the head is the one part of the body that’s difficult for a bird to reach with its bill to preen, it seems logical that a severe case of lice or mites could the problem. But I’ve also read reports blaming the condition on an unusual molt. Normally song birds molt, or replace their body feathers, just a few at a time, so it’s hard for even a keen observer to notice.

Unhealthy

For all the head feathers to fall out at once would certainly be unusual and hardly beneficial. The skin could get sunburned by day, torn up by thorns and tree branches, or badly chilled at night or during rain storms. One of the purposes of feathers, after all, is to protect the body from the elements.

Even ornithologists familiar with the problem cannot agree on an explanation. Gary Ritchison, an ornithologist at Eastern Kentucky University and author of Wild Bird Guides: Northern Cardinal (1997, Stackpole) told me he has, ” … handled thousands of cardinals while mist-netting and banding over the years and only a few have had naked heads. None of those had severe mite or lice problems.”

He attributes the phenomenon to an unusual molt pattern. David Bird, an ornithologist at McGill University in Quebec and author of The Bird Almanac (1999, Firefly Books), like me, always assumed this was a parasite problem, but a colleague, Rodger Titman (I’m not making these names up), argues strongly for the unusual molt explanation.

“Rodger has convinced me that an irregular molt is the better answer,” Bird says. Sylvia Halkin, an ornithologist at Central Connecticut University and co-author of the cardinal account in The Birds of North America (1999, No. 440), suggested in print that unusual feather loss may be due to a response to a traumatic injury.

Explanation

Finally, Chris Thompson, an ornithologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, has been studying molt for years. When cardinals just lose their crest or their heads appear scruffy, he explained, that’s probably the result of molt.

“Most birds become secretive and less active while molting, so we don’t see them very often in this condition,” he said. “Since we don’t often see actively molting birds, we perceive the condition as rare, although it’s probably just rarely seen.”

Completely naked heads, on the other hand, “are not normal,” he says. “When birds molt, new feathers push out the old ones, so a head should never appear completely naked. Parasites might be the answer.”

Next time you see a bald cardinal (or other backyard bird), blame molt if the bird looks like it’s having a bad hair day. But if the head is completely naked, it could be parasites or maybe trauma from an injury.

(Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or via e-mail at his website, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com.)

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

43 Comments

  1. T Hoover says:

    Thanks for posting this info-

  2. Steve Wulf says:

    so.. noone really knows.

  3. Kansas says:

    Just saw a cardinal like this about two minutes ago, googled it, and found this website. So no one knows for sure?

  4. Steve Callaway says:

    I think it is just one bald and well travelled cardinal!

  5. Mark says:

    I just saw one in my backyard (near Burlington, NC) on May 5, 2013, 3:45pm. Looked completely bald and just showing black skin. My first thought was a traumatic injury of some sort, so I searched online for an explanation. Based on this article, I guess it must be parasites.

    • Jane says:

      I have had bald male cardinals in my yard most of this summer. I’ve been a bird watcher for over 60 years and this is the first time I’ve ever seen this. I tend to agree that it is probably some form of molt. But, my further question is … is the skin of the entire bird black?

  6. Fred says:

    We see bald Cardinals almost every year in Illinois. I seems to be common in males.

  7. Sandra says:

    We have a bald male cardinal that visits our birdfeeder on a regular basis. He has been around for at least 2 years looking the very same way. I feel sorry for him would like to make him a little hat.

  8. Carl Palmer says:

    We have had a completely black headed Cardinal in our yard for years. When he started loosing his feathers and was half bald we named him Phantom (after the the half masked Phantom of the Opera.)
    The female was and stayed completely feathered. We have not seen a bald female. We learned where there nests were and the baldness trait has been past to the offspring. After these many year we do not know if we see phantom or son of phantom. So the trait is either genetically past down or caused by mites, we don’t know. We will watch For a female Phantom.

  9. Rick says:

    I have one like this in my back yard in Maryland… I thought it was a different kind of bird until I saw its mate flying with him. The “vulture” look is spot on…

    • Bett says:

      My husband and I have a juvenile female with a bald head visiting our Baltimore feeder this summer. She was always alone but I am glad to report that we viewed a healthy male cardinal with her at the feeder yesterday. I was afraid she had been rejected because of her odd baldness but after reading the comments here I am glad to know she may have a chance at a “normal” mate and lifespan.

  10. Amelia says:

    Thanks for this explanation! We recently saw a thoroughly bald, black headed cardinal at our feeder and were wondering what caused this cardinal vulture.

  11. Renee says:

    This is the first year I’ve seen him, but he seems healthy and eats ravenously at the feeder. Completely black head, like an old leather helmet. I’m in a residential area of Raleigh NC.

  12. Karen says:

    I just saw a “vultured” male Cardinal today – July 17, 2013. Had one last year as well although he was a bigger bird. The female’s that I have seen still have all of their feathers – Bluffton, SC.

  13. Morgan says:

    Just saw one today (July 20th, 2013) at the feeder in Martinsburg, WV.

  14. Heather says:

    I reside in East Texas. I, too have a bald-headed male cardinal. He’s been around for quite awhile. Just today I noticed another with the onset of the same, but interestingly it appears this male has little areas not only confined to his neck and head. I think it’s starting on his back, as well. Also of note, there are about four other younger males (not of juvenile age) that have somewhat mottled coloring……almost making them appear female, but they are definitely not female. Pretty sure they are from the same nest originally. I was just told yesterday of one same male in Denton, TX so I guess this is widespread. Wish we could know for sure. This is the first year of these sightings for me.

  15. Billy says:

    We’ve had a bald male here at our feeder. Augusta, GA. His female mate looks just fine. He appears healthy. I assumed trauma.

  16. Barbie Lew says:

    Hi,
    For the past few weeks “Baldy” my black headed bald cardinal has been visiting. Today, I noticed “Baldetta” a completely bald female! Also today a scruffy headed male, proper male/s & proper female/s.

    There are titmice, chickadee’s, sparrows, red finches, downy woodpecker & nuthatch on occasaion..But cardinal is only bald birf I have noted.

  17. theresa says:

    we have had a male coming to our feeder in roswell,ga. for a couple yrs. the baldness starts about mid to late July. Now we are seeing 2 to 3 this yr. Wonder if it is really parasites,or something inherited

  18. tvabiker says:

    We have one .. east Tennessee 2013

  19. Francisco Mari says:

    I have one nesting on my backyard in Elgin, Illinois, on the Chicago suburbs. It does look like a mini vulture. The young female nesting with him looks normal. If it were parasites the female would most likely have it also since they share the same nest, don’t you think?

  20. Loren says:

    We have seen one at our feeder during June and July at Lake of the Ozarks, MO. He was feeding 2 normal fledglings. PS Maybe he was hen pecked. :-)

  21. tvabiker says:

    Maybe he liked the hen that was doing the peckin

  22. Amy Moss says:

    Just saw a bald male today in my yard, southwest PA. I am leaning toward genetics instead of parasites. I love how googling brought me right to this site! Very interesting and cool to know this exists all over!

  23. Lex says:

    I’m in Birmingham al and have a pair that comes to the feeder multiple times a day. They are both larger than regular cardinals, have even bigger orange beaks than cardinals I have seen, and have scruffy but fully-feathered heads with no crests. The male has bluish grey marks on the back of his head. They look like cardinals in every way except for the head shape. I’ve been stumped by this and have not found the answer thru research but I guess they are large moulting cardinals?

  24. Sandie says:

    Just saw one at our feeder. Have seen scruffy cardinals before, but this is first that is completely bald.

  25. Charla says:

    Good to know it is a common thing….I was afraid they had contracted something in our area only. We have a bald male and some kind of scruffy females tagging along at our feeder in St. Joseph, MO this last few weeks. Thanks for the site, it really helps to know if is pretty common. We will keep feeding them and hope they come out of it.

  26. Mari says:

    We have been watching a totally bald male Cardinal at our feeder for 3 to 4 weeks, in central Minnesota.
    The skin of his head appears dark blue. Have been trying to photograph him but he doesn’t stay long. He has all the features of a healthy young adult Cardinal except the bald head and grumpy look/ attitude. This is the first summer we’ve ever noticed this, though we have 3-4 breeding pairs of Cardinals who live on our wooded lot year-round.

  27. Jim says:

    We’ve seen a bald male at our feeder all summer. Seems healthy otherwise, and appears to have a normal looking female mate. Madison, WI.

  28. Angie says:

    Located in SW Michigan — have the primary male cardinal that looks like someone took the clippers to him when he was sleeping. Lost the feathers on top of his head, as well as blotches on the body. Hoping he’ll come out of it soon.

  29. Sharon says:

    I have many 10 pairs of cardinals coming to feed.I live in NW Arkansas. Been watching them for 7 years, however I believe this is the first time I have noticed the molting effect on the males…. At first I noticed the poor things with black/purple colored heads with sprigs of feathers poking out.. all the feamales seem to be fine. I see mine all day long as they come to eat the Diamond Lamb & Rice food we have out for the Cats… Haven’t seen too many Jays the last month, so maybe they are hiding.. will need to take notice if the Jays are molting also. So happy to see this is wide spread effect.. I know birds do molt during the summer… :)

  30. Gino says:

    Over the past year (2012/2013), my first year of having a feeder, I have had many cardinals visit. I have had great success with many species and I have witnessed both a female and a male cardinal experiencing baldness.

    The female cardinal presented over the winter with a completely bald head and made it through the spring. I never once saw her behaving or feeding differently than any of the other cardinals. I have yet to see her this summer. I simply assume she grew her head crest back quickly and is now one of the normal looking females because I never saw what I would say is a female cardinal growing back its head feathers.

    I witnessed the male progressively losing his beautiful crest in July. It started with a small spot on one side of his face and the feather loss worked itself all the way around. Today I saw him as bald as a vulture, feeding and seemingly happy as I can remember. I intend on keeping my eye on him to see if he grows his head feathers back before the winter.

  31. Susan says:

    Saw my first completely bald cardinal this summer in Central MA. He looked healthy and didn’t appear to have any other feather issues. I think it must be genetic because the line between his bald head and his healthy feathers was perfect – if it were parasites you would think he would look unevenly bald? Interesting – never saw this before in the 20 years at my house.

  32. Billy says:

    After a few days of absence my bald cardinal was back at the feeder with what looks like a buzz cut. He has light red (punk pink?) feathers coming in all over his formerly bald head. So, is this a head only molt? Or recovering from other problems?

  33. Gail says:

    I have one bald head with holes like vultures cardinal in my birdfeeder everyday and I took some pictures and it’s really gross and knew its something wrong like diseases but very interesting to watch him as other birds have no fear of this bird.Live in Wisconsin!

  34. Cindy Sale says:

    2011 and 2012 I noticed 1 cardinal with completely bald head at our feeders, I called him franken-cardinal. This summer I have see 7 different birds; cardinals, blue jays and a dove, with the same condition. The condition seems to be spreading to other birds who come into our feeders. We are in a rural area. Within a 1/2 mile in any direction there are other neighbors with feeders, with lots of timber, a lake & pond, open fields, crop land, pasture and a county park and golf course near by. We live near Des Moines Iowa. Franken-cardinal winters over and is a regular at our feeders, his head feathers came back over the winter but never completely so he was easy to spot among the others.

  35. irene says:

    i”m west of Pittsburgh. have bald headed cardinal. it’s probably a female because it is not bright red, but also seems more red then other females. it is so bald you can clearly see the ear openings. it’s seems large, but maybe the feathers ( all complete) are puffed up to stay warmer.? noticed one earlier this year. seems to feed well. Wonder if the feed has some additive that effects only cardinals. use “3-d premium song bird feed…..

  36. Rose Haven says:

    I have not seen a bald cardinal and am a long time birder in Iowa and Minnesota. I don’t buy the idea that it is genetic nor a natural molting. I suspect an environmental factor, e.g., herbicides, pesticides, either in the natural environment or in the feed.

  37. Sue says:

    My husband 1st spotted Kojack, our male bald cardinal about 3 winters ago. Hadn’t seen him for several months, then he reappeared about 3 months ago. Was glad to see him with a mate this time. We also had a bald female visit our feeders this spring & summer. She also had a mate, but we haven’t seen her for about a month. We named her Kojill. Got photos of both baldies so I could enlarge them & check out their heads better

  38. Bonnie says:

    We have a bald headed male cardinal here in Etowah, Tn. He first appeared back during the fall of last year 2013. He was only partially bald then. I thought something had pecked him or he had an accident. He always came to the feeder alone, and only stayed a minute. But every few days more feathers were gone, until he was completely bald. He went all winter bald. I always felt sorry for him, we had a very harsh winter here this year,many days never got above freezing, and many nights zero or below. I always made sure to keep out food for all the birds and especially lots of food during our snow days. He now stays longer at the feeder, and eats with all the other birds. He doesn’t have a mate yet, but I keep my hopes up for him!

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