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Birdchick Blog: Bald Cardinals

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Bald Cardinals

Well, it's that time of year again when I get a phone question that goes something like this:

"I think I have an escaped cage bird, or some rare bird. I've got a bird that is all red, almost as red as a cardinal (on a few occasions the bird will be brown). The bird has a small black head, and big orange bill. Do you know what that is?"

It's the bald cardinal sometimes called "pinhead" or "mini red vulture". Melissa Block got this photo. It was very funny, she called when I was in Virginia and asked if she could borrow the NovaBird Camera to get photos of birds eating mealworms for the Wild Bird Store's newsletter. I told her to just take one from the store, use it for a day or two and then bring it back. Two days later I get an email from Melissa telling me that she's having too much fun with the camera and will just buy it. It's fun, it's like you're still able to bird when you aren't home. Notice the hole just below the eye--that's the cardinal's ear. I wonder if their hearing is affected without the feathers covering the hole?

Cardinals can go bald for a couple of reasons. This time of year the birds are molting so before the new feathers grow in the old feathers fall out and for some reason cardinals will sometimes loose all the feathers on their head. The skin is black and without the fluffy feathers, their head looks teeny tiny especially with the massive bill.

Sometimes birds will get feather mites and all their feathers will get eaten away by the mites and the birds are bald until they grow in new ones. However, if you are seeing bald cardinals this time of year, it's a safe bet that they are molting. You may also see bald blue jays or grackles as well. Hilton Pond did a great article about feather mites, that featured a frightening photo of a bald female cardinal--eeeeeelich.

UPDATE: You can read more about bald cardinals here.

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Blogger Bean said...

I, too, have a bald cardinal at my birdfeeder here in Dalton, GA. He looks just like the picture in your webside. Everytime I creep over to the window with my camera he flies off, obviously embarrassed! There's also a crestless female and alot of shabby molting finches!

7/23/2006 8:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks to you I now know what the strange looking bird at my feeder was. I was definately surprised to see this stranger and hope to see him again.

7/08/2007 7:05 PM  
Anonymous pmilatty said...

Thanks for the story. I've been wondering about the bald cardinals in my backyard for several days. I thought that they were diseased.

Phil Miller
Oakton, VA

7/22/2007 4:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yep, got one here in Washington DC too. Poor fella is UGLY! And the other male cardinal on the block must be even more proud of his full red plummage right now...

7/23/2007 7:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought I saw a "black-headed" cardinal tonight in Milwaukee, WI. It was feeding a young one. It was too far away for me to tell it was bald but I did notice is was missing it's crest. I finally chanced upon the Cornell Univ All About Birds website. I'm glad to know it's probably just molting.

8/02/2007 10:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have the most awesome bald male cardinal at my feeder in Nahville TN. He looks so pitiful but is full of spunk and has a female companion most times! I took some great pics of him!

8/03/2007 2:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks for helping me identify this bird too. Thought I was going crazy! I live in Roxboro, NC. A male AND a female are both bald at my feeder, that's why I thought they were something else. No wonder I couldn't find them in my bird guide. These birds and their beaks looked bigger to me than cardinals, like cardinals on steroids. This messed with my head today...!

8/11/2007 6:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We've had bald cardinals in our backyard for several years. At first, there was only a single male, but in recent years the baldness has spread to multiple males and females. This year the condition has further spread to common grackles.

R. Wilmoth
Newport News, VA

8/20/2007 8:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you! We have been watching our poor bald cardnial for three years. He seems very timid and will always fly off before we can snap his picture. We have several feeders at our dental office and the kids really have been wondering about the "bald red bird"

6/12/2008 1:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for solving the mystery! I've been watching what I thought was some kind of mutant male cardinal at one of my bird feeders for several weeks! (I'm in Nashville, TN)

6/25/2008 8:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw a bald cardinal on my deck.I was afraid it had been in a fight. I hope the feathers grow back soon.

7/17/2008 12:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see some postings on the web about bald cardinals since I have seen one at my birdfeeder in Westmont, IL this summer. I was wondering if he had mites or other disease, and how he will fare by winter if the feathers don't grow back. I know I'm not crazy.

7/17/2008 7:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been wondering what was going on. Thanks for the explanation. They are very funny to see. Here's a pic of one in Georgia if you are interested:

His head sure looks tiny.

7/20/2008 6:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks to all of you for posting your comments; I was a little worried when I first notice the bald cardinal; I thought at first he/she may have been a sick cardinal or gotten attack by another bird; glad to hear that this is common thing for my favorite little bird

8/22/2008 12:35 PM  

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