“Cardinal Vulture”

I’m sure most of us have seen a turkey vulture, that dark soaring bird with a featherless head. Well, I have a new vulture to add!

I was startled earlier this summer by a red bird right outside the family room window that I had not seen before. I saw a spectacular new red bird this year, a Summer Tanager, so I thought I had another to add to my life list. All I caught before it flew off was that it was an all red bird with a black head. Out came the bird book, only to find there is no such bird to be found. Hmm.

Then it came back again, and it was with the female cardinal.

I had to figure this out, so I filled up the squirrel-proof sunflower seed feeder, hung it right in front of the kitchen window and hoped it would entice this odd bird in so I could identify it.

Lo and behold, he arrived and it was a male cardinal with no feathers on his head.

After some research on the internet, it seems bald cardinals are not all that unusual and there seems to be a few reasons it may occur:

  • Something can go wrong in the post-breeding molting process. Although these molting birds usually replace feathers in waves so that bare spots rarely appear, some species like cardinals, blue jays and grackles seem to be particularly susceptible to losing all their head feathers at once during molting.
  • Feather mites. The birds aren’t able to pick them off their heads during preening and the mites destroy the feather shafts. The birds will eventually grow new feathers.

Some less likely reasons are:

  • Feather-pecking by other birds.  Some birds like crows, will attack other birds and peck off feathers. But they usually only attack their own species. Interestingly, my mom has this issue with her chickens.
  • Disease. But, the birds generally don’t show any other symptoms of being sick
  • Other factors might include nutritional deficiencies, unusually high temperature, or other environmental stress.
  • It’s also possible that total feather loss may be a normal occurrence for individual birds.

No matter what the reason is, it seems not be a cause for worry. The feathers will grow back, and in this bird’s case, it hasn’t interfered with attracting a mate. I hope he grows his feather’s back before the weather turns cold.

For more details on how this interesting phenomena, check out these other articles:

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