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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.)