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Jeepers – feather loss and bald birds

The Fourth of July has come and gone, and summer is now about doldrums and dog days.  You’ve raised your offspring and sent them on their way.  Now, a little “me time” is in order to improve your plumage.  Ok, maybe not so much for you, but for some of our familiar feathered friends, it is that time of year.  Maintaining a fine-looking plumage is not easy and feathers wear out.   Thus, all birds molt during their annual cycle to replace old and worn feathers with new ones.  Late summer, after energetically demanding breeding has occurred, is a time of year when many species go through some sort of molt.  This is normal for the birds, but when people observe a bird going through “the change” it can cause concern.   Last week, we were forwarded the following photos of a male Northern Cardinal whose head feathers were falling out.  The bird superficially appeared to be in some sort of distress.  What could be the cause?  disease?  starvation? poisoning? pestilence?  None of the above.  The male Northern Cardinal in the photos is molting his head feathers, and this appearance is not unusual this time of year.

This male Northern Cardinal's appearance
This male Northern Cardinal’s bedraggled appearance is not cause for alarm or concern; he is simply molting, replacing worn feathers with new ones.  Photo courtesy of Tina Lant.
Another view of the same bird.
Another view of the same bird.  Photo courtesy of Tina Lant.

The person who sent us the photos was concerned.  With all the talk about avian flu, and now West Nile Virus, this was a reasonable response.  If someone is uncertain about something that appears ominous, it is a good idea to let someone know.  Occasionally a few isolated reports of sick or dead wildlife can be an early indicator something bigger is going on.  Thus, reports of sick or dead wildlife are always very much appreciated.  But in this case, there is no cause for concern and no need to take any action.

A couple years ago, we received a photograph of a completely bald Northern Cardinal observed at a bird bath in Nebraska.  It was quite an odd looking bird.  It was also observed about this time of year while it was also molting.   I wrote a story about this observation for NEBRASKAland (the photo and the story can be accessed HERE).  Blue Jays are another common backyard bird that can appear scraggly and bald-headed during mid- to late summer.  Some species molt gradually over time, with no periods of feather loss or baldness.  Thus, some birds may not appear any different even when they are replacing feathers.

Good birding!

Nongame Bird Blog

About Joel Jorgensen

Joel Jorgensen is a Nebraska native and he has been interested in birds just about as long as he has been breathing. He has been NGPC’s Nongame Bird Program Manager for eight years and he works on a array of monitoring, research, regulatory and conservation issues. Nongame birds are the 400 or so species that are not hunted and include the Whooping Crane, Least Tern, Piping Plover, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon. When not working, he enjoys birding.

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