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Bald birds shocking, but not uncommon this time of year

September 15, 2018
Bald birds shocking, but not uncommon this time of year
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This balding cardinal was seen near Ewing, Missouri this month.

Reports of “bald” cardinals and blue jays are coming into some local and national wildlife experts this time of year.

A cardinal in Missouri lost all of its feathers on its head, showing a lot of skin while Pittsburgh nature photographer Dan Dasynich captured a “balding” cardinal in Lincoln Place earlier this month.

Compared to their expected coiffed appearance of a plush crown of crested ruby feathers, backyard watchers find the “balding” phenomenon shocking.

“We do get calls about it every year,” said Jim Bonner, executive director of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, headquartered in Fox Chapel.

The National Audubon Society reports that, while this can be an alarming sight, it is not necessarily a cause for concern.

Most feather loss this time of year is only temporary and caused by molting, shedding old feathers and growing new ones, according to Audubon.

Mites could also be a cause.

The National Aviary’s Ornithologist Bob Mulvihill in Pittsburgh calls the excessive loss of feathers from the heads of cardinals and blue jays “not a typical molt.”

Mulvihill attributes the loss of head and facial feathers, at least in part, to feather-eating parasites. Such parasites on the head would be difficult for the birds to get at.

“The the only place the birds can’t preen themselves are on their own heads,” said Mulvihill, who has been banding birds for 40 years.

But why does the dramatic balding seem to hit the cardinals and blue jays?

Dr. Wesley Hochachka, assistant director for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s bird population studies group, explained that not all blue jays or cardinals experience a complete head-feather loss, but it’s not uncommon.

“I think that the answer is likely that molt is more obvious for Northern Cardinal and Blue Jay as a result of the frequency with which these species lose all or almost all of their head feathers simultaneously (i.e. people see bald cardinals and jays),” he said.

According to the Cornell Lab, the entire process of molting “is complex and many questions remain regarding how the process is controlled.”

Molting is temporary and new feathers grow in.

The most obvious molting birds locally this time of year are the ones who lose their bright spring and summer colors: The gold goes out of the American goldfinch, the red vanishes from the scarlet tanager and the blue no longer electrifies the indigo bunting. All three beauties have or are becoming duller yellow to tan colors.

There are more dramatic molts donned by birds such as the African penguins at the Aviary, which does a complete molt, losing all of its feathers and looking like a ’big exploded pillow,” according to Mulvihill.

When the birds lose all of their feathers, they can’t be in the water and therefore cannot eat, he said.

“That’s a huge pressure to do the molt quickly,” he said.

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