Bald Cardinals and Other Bald Birds
Every year about late July and early August there are questions from people asking about black headed birds, miniature vultures or bald headed feeder birds. Most of the time, people are describing cardinals without any feathers on their heads, but I've also had reports of bald blue jays and grackles.
While I was down in Indianapolis, my mom had a bald cardinal coming to her feeding station. So, what is the dealio? No one knows for sure, even Cornell Lab of the Big O admits that the case of the bald cardinal is not well studied. There are two possible explanations. Number one, this is the time of year when many songbirds (including cardinals and blue jays) are molting (shedding old feathers and growing in new feathers). For some reason, the birds drop all of their feathers on their heads at once. I've seen this with captive birds like great horned owls and even our education screech owl at The Raptor Center. The birds are healthy, they just molt everything at once (interesting to note that all of those species mentioned are tufted: cardinal, blue jay, great horned owl, eastern screech owl--hmmmmmmm).
Alas, my mom didn't have just a bald male cardinal, she also had a bald grackle (so much for the only tufted bird theory). This grackle was much more wary than the cardinal and this was the only shot I got of it. The bird seemed to sense the spotting scope and flush right as I was about to take a photo. I don't blame it, the bird kind of looks like a Skeksis, I wouldn't want my photo taken either. This bird leads me to the number two reason birds can go bald and that is that they can get feather mites. Generally, birds can use their bills to remove pests like mites when they are preening. However, they would be unable to get to mites on their heads and so the mites eat away the feathers. It's tough to say what really is going on, without trapping the bird and looking for the mites, you really can't tell for certain if it's molting or mites causing the lack of feathers.
There was another grackle coming to mom's feeders that was starting to lose its facial feathers. Interesting to note that the cardinals are dark skinned under the feathers and the grackles are light skinned. Since my mom had at least three birds that were either bald or starting to become bald, I wondered if this was a case of mites being passed around. The birds appeared in good health and were eating well, looking alert--all good signs. And mites don't usually kill a bird. Annoy it and make it look grotesque--yes, but kill birds--not so much. Check out the video I got of the male cardinal eating a berry off of mom's fuschia plant:
Did you note how he scratched the back of his head? That also makes me wonder if mites are the cause. Although, I would bet a bunch of pin feathers growing in at once would be rather itchy.
By the way, don't feel too bad for him, he's still gettin' some play. Not long after I took that video, this female flew in and he jauntily bounced over to her and fed her some of the fuschia berries--very clear mating behavior. She didn't seem to mind his bald pate one bit (perhaps she likes that Christine Lavin song). Although, if you look right behind her eye, there's a small bald patch--mites? Will she be bare headed soon as well?
As I was watching the cardinal, I noticed something new. Check out where his ear canal is. Do you see it? It's that large hole right under his eyeball (there's a small red feather over it). How cool--who knew that their ears were just below their eyes...and about the same size. I wonder if anyone has done any studies and the hearing capability of cardinals? So much we don't yet know...
And just for comparison and to not leave you with grotesque cardinals, here is a photo of a proper male cardinal. Whether the birds in the other photos have mites or an odd molt pattern, don't worry too much. In most cases, the feathers do grow back in plenty of time before the winter sets in and all will be right with the cardinal world once again.