You may have seen scruffy or even bald cardinals at your bird feeder. What causes that, and is it anything to worry about?
My wife and I have two bird feeders in our backyard, on the edge of a small woodlot. We picked the spot because the room facing it has low windows that our two-year-old can see the birds through. She loves to watch them, though she tends to scare them away. Banging on the window with both hands and screaming “Birdy tweet-tweet!” over and over has that effect.
Despite her best efforts, the birds keep coming. We even have a resident pair of cardinals, which are my wife’s favorite birds. She loves the male’s bold red color.
The other day, my wife called me over to watch the feeder. “There’s something wrong with the cardinal,” she said.
I joined my family at the window. Sure enough, the male looked strange. He looked like he had a tumor around his eye.
Birds can get several eye diseases – particularly if too many gather around feeders – so I was worried. I grabbed my telephoto lens so I could take a close-up picture of the bird.
When I examined the picture on my computer, I was both relieved and confused. The bird didn’t have a tumor. Phew. But there was something else odd about him.
He was bald.
The bald male cardinal at our bird feeder likely has an unusual molt, not parasites, and will be just fine.
As a man in his thirties, I had sympathy for this poor bird. I wondered: is this normal? Do cardinals suffer from male pattern baldness? Or is something seriously wrong with my neighborhood cardinal?
In researching it, I found two explanations. The first is that the bird could have a mite infestation. These tiny parasites eat feathers, so an infestation could explain the baldness. Birds normally pick off mites when they preen, but as you’d expect, birds can’t reach the backs of their heads with their beaks.
Digging further though, the mite explanation has some problems. Turns out a few scientists have studied balding birds. When they’ve netted and examined bald cardinals up close, the birds almost never have mites.
So what’s going on? The current best explanation is that the bird is having an unusual molt. Birds normally molt in such a way that you would never notice. As they lose old feathers, the new ones have already grown in to replace them. But in some cases, the new feathers aren’t ready yet. The result? Baldness.
Fortunately, baldness due to molting is only temporary. In a few weeks, our male cardinal should have his full red crown back.
If only I could be so lucky.