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Why is that bird bald?

Find out why some cardinals and Blue Jays lose their head feathers all at once.
Published: 7/29/2005

A bald Northern Cardinal. Photo by David Brown

A bald Northern Cardinal. Photo by David Brown.

In late summer and early fall, people frequently ask us about bald birds that they’ve seen. Naturally they wonder, “Why is that bird bald?”

The short answer is no one knows why it’s bald, but this strange sight occurs every year, mostly in Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays. Of course, we can speculate…

Birds molt their feathers throughout the year, and one possible explanation for baldness is that an abnormal molt occurs on some birds, causing them to lose all of their head feathers at once. The birds may be juveniles undergoing their first prebasic molt.

It’s also possible that feather mites or lice may cause baldness. The condition has not been studied closely, but fortunately, new feathers grow in within a few weeks.

Thanks to David Brown of Los Alamos, New Mexico, for sending his photo of a bald cardinal, which he saw at his brother’s place in Ohio.

More about bird baldness

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has more photos of bald cardinals, as well as bald Blue Jays.

The Buffalo News published an article on bald birds in 1998.

Be sure to check out Bill Hilton’s article and amazing up-close photos of a bald cardinal.

And in a 2004 article, Syracuse, New York, bird columnist Ben Burtt describes baldness and the molting process.

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