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September 1, 2012

Northern Cardinal

Carolina Wren

It’s that time of year again!  It’s possible you’ve seen birds that look something like this-

What in the world happened to this Cardinal’s handsome crest?  Don’t worry, he doesn’t have some kind of wasting disease!  He’s merely molting.

Molting is a natural and regular process where some or all of a bird’s feathers are replaced.  A bird’s feathers are extremely important- not only do they allow for flight, but they regulate body temperature and keep the elements away from a bird’s skin.  Feathers are much like hair on people- they grow, but aren’t ‘alive’.  Feathers become damaged through wear and tear.  If a feather is removed, it will grow back- but damaged feathers stay damaged.  So they need to be replaced every so often.  This is what molting accomplishes- renewal of a vital system.

Many birds molt once a year.  Some partially molt again right before mating season to switch into their most colorful feathers.  Rarely, a few species molt twice a year (and these birds live in habitats where their feathers get damaged a lot).  Molts are often timed to occur after nesting and before migrations (late summer).  The reason for this timing is to fall in the lull between the strenuous activity of raising young and flying for thousands of miles.  This way there is less stress upon the bird.

Molting takes place gradually over some weeks.  This way a bird is not left featherless, flightless and cold, which is what would happen if all of its feathers came off at once.  Sometimes different parts of the body molt at different times- for instance, the head and body may molt during a given time, and then the wings molt at a later time.  Although birds can be flightless for a brief period, generally the feather loss and replacement is an even process scattered over the bird’s body so that vital functions are not greatly impeded.

The above poor little fellow is a Carolina Wren that I photographed singing in August 2011.  Looking very raggedy, I wondered if it had been mauled by a cat!  But this is the season for molting, and the bird certainly could sing up a storm and fly well enough.  Molting isn’t pretty, but it is essential to get those feathers in great shape for the coming winter.

For some reason, most of the pictures I have of birds molting are of Cardinals.  I’m guessing it’s because they are very noticeable when they are missing some feathers.

Here’s a male Cardinal that’s been hanging out in front of my apartment, where I feed the local wildlife the occasional unsalted peanut.  I’m calling him ‘Mister Molty’ right now.  These pictures were taken yesterday.

Don’t worry, he’ll sooner or later be back to normal, which looks like this:

One of these days I’ll have to talk about the Cardinal family that keeps me company throughout much of the year.  They enjoy the easy peanuts I provide, and in turn I get some nice photos of them.  Either they are tame, or they’ve trained me well…
Birds with totally bald heads may have something else going on besides molting.  For further reading on this subject, here are a couple of links:

Project Feederwatch- Bald Birds

Buffalo News – The Case of the Bald Birds (09/14/98)

24 Comments leave one →
  1. September 1, 2012 8:13 pm

    They sure do go through a lot to be beautiful once again. 🙂

    • September 1, 2012 8:17 pm

      They certainly do, Robin! If birds were vain, I would imagine molting would be more stressful for them than it currently is 😉

  2. keekeepod permalink
    September 1, 2012 10:59 pm

    Never seen a molting cardinal before. Startling!

    We’ve had bald blue jays that stayed bald through an entire season. I remember reading somewhere that mites are to blame.

    • September 1, 2012 11:56 pm

      It’s amazing how different birds look without their fluffy feathers!

      You many be right, Keekeepod- after reading your comment, I found some info on bald birds and added it to the post. Thanks!

  3. September 1, 2012 11:39 pm

    Interesting photos, but I must say that I prefer the last one! When I was a child I had a canary and when he first began to molt I was terrified!

    • September 1, 2012 11:59 pm

      I hear you, Montucky! I feel sorry for the bald little birds, but they do look a bit creepy (especially when you don’t expect to see them like that)

  4. September 1, 2012 11:58 pm

    I’m afraid they have US trained! I saw my first bald cardinal last summer, quite a sight. I’ve only caught a glimpse of the Carolina wren at the feeder, but it was a bit scraggly-looking. House finches show up with a “wild” feather sticking straight up from their head sometimes. Have to smile at them, but the cardinal looks rather pitiful.

    • September 2, 2012 12:14 am

      I think you’re right, Patti! 🙂 That Cardinal needs a feathered head before it gets cold!

  5. Jo Woolf permalink
    September 2, 2012 3:03 am

    Our birds are looking scruffy too, but I have never seen any that moult all their head feathers at once like that.

    • September 2, 2012 2:02 pm

      I’m wondering if the bare-headed Cardinal has a possible mite issue, Jo…that’s a bit much!

  6. September 2, 2012 6:50 pm

    Yep, my birds are looking pretty unkept, too. The chickadees look like they have been through a major wind storm … only, we have not even had a small shower. Guess we all have to suffer through bad hair days. 😉

  7. September 3, 2012 1:57 pm

    I’ve never seen a bald cardinal. And I’m really not sure if I want to again! Interesting post-I never knew they went bald.

    • September 3, 2012 4:47 pm

      He looks quite different, doesn’t he? Poor fella! I’m sure he’ll be happy to have his head covered once again too.

  8. September 4, 2012 10:41 am

    Too funny–I guess we’re lucky they can’t hide from the camera! I may need to invest in some peanuts!

  9. September 5, 2012 10:04 am

    I’ve recently photographed a couple of cardinals that were looking quite ‘rough’ … Mr. Molty is kind of yucky like that… LOL I’d have been tempted to refer to him as “Kojak”.

  10. September 29, 2012 12:12 pm

    Fascinating photos! I’ve never seen this before!

  11. Becky B permalink
    August 5, 2019 10:49 am

    I am very concerned about a molting male Cardinal we found today in the yard. It was surrounded by cats, but we picked it up. I called our local rescue, but am just so concerned that it cannot fly, and the cats will get it. She said there is nothing I can do, and to let it go. I feel so sorry for this flightless molting male. I am trying to figure out best and safest place to release it nearby. Has anybody else ever had this predicament?

    • August 5, 2019 11:05 am

      I’ve never run into a molting bird who couldn’t fly before- that’s terrible! Very sorry to hear this.

      Do you have a garage or porch you could put it in with some birdseed and water? I’d hate to leave it out to die. Check your local laws, however- in some places only licensed rehabbers are allowed to take care of a wild animal (not that I haven’t done that before when it was an emergency).


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