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Molting Cardinals

September 5, 2015

Northern Cardinal

Come August and September, you may notice some very shabby-looking birds.  Cardinals are probably the most noticeable in this regard.

It’s the molting season!

A few years ago, I did a post on molting.  This year I got more photos of this phenomenon, so I figured I’d post them.

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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.

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This female Cardinal that comes by my place for peanuts is currently molting- she looks like a chicken in the above photos, her face feather-free but her crest still intact.

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I hope I still look pretty!

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Here she is sans crest.  This morning when I saw her, she’s starting to get more feathers around her neck, so she will be looking normal again later this month.  Notice the round spot beneath and behind her eye- that’s actually her ear.  She looks almost like a dinosaur without the feathers!

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Here’s her normal beautiful self from a few months ago.

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Here’s one of the male Cardinals that stop by, currently molting.  Notice his ‘eyebrows’ still flourishing on his bald head.

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And here’s what the male looked like earlier this year.  Molting will be done in time for cold weather to return.  Luckily molting happens after the mating and family-raising season is done- this is a time between the demands of the young and the demands cold weather places upon birds.  There is a season for everything.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. September 5, 2015 3:20 pm

    love these photos — especially the “chicken pic”. So interesting– a season for everything indeed…

  2. September 5, 2015 4:43 pm

    I always like the slightly bewildered air that moulting tends to give to birds.

    • September 5, 2015 9:58 pm

      So true, Tootlepedal! “What the heck is happening? I’m losing my natural good looks!’

  3. September 7, 2015 6:22 am

    Thanks for the post. One always wonders if the bird has contracted some type of desase.

    • September 7, 2015 8:56 am

      I know what you mean, Robert! Funny how the feathers on the body seem to molt gradually, not all at once, but the feathers on the head are quite different.

      And I never see a bald Cardinal outside of August or September…

  4. September 9, 2015 10:36 pm

    I’ve noticed the Cardinals, Blue Jays, and even the Carolina Wrens look bedraggled this fall. One of the Blue Jays is bald, saw it today.

  5. September 10, 2015 7:50 am

    I guess I need to look at my cardinals more closely! We have one that I saw earlier this year, and last summer too, that has like a gray collar or mantle setting off his bright red feathers. I haven’t seen him lately so I hope he is okay–or perhaps he molted back to brighter plumage!

  6. June 9, 2016 6:12 am

    That is incredibly unusual – I’ve never seen a bird looking like that during molting!

  7. bwatcher permalink
    May 27, 2019 11:39 am

    If the same appearance is observed in May, what to attribute it to — is it likely to be mites? or some disease?

  8. Veronica Lemke permalink
    July 19, 2019 6:36 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your article. I currently have two molting female cardinals and even a bluejay although shocking to see the pictures I got are awesome. The first time I saw one I thought it was some weird exotic. Now the only cardinal pictures I haven’t taken are of the nests. I had fun this year watching the juveniles grow and change.

    • July 19, 2019 6:58 pm

      Molting birds really startle a lot of people when they see them, Veronica- but it’s nature’s way of fixing things up after nesting season. Thanks for commenting, if you blog about your Cardinals let me hear from you!

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