Cardinal Transformations: Cardinal Molting & Bald Cardinals




Cardinal Molting

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The striking red plumage of the Northern Cardinal is a sight synonymous with many North American backyards. However, there are moments when this brilliance is temporarily overshadowed as these birds undergo a natural, yet lesser-known process: molting.

This cyclical shedding and regrowth of feathers is a cardinal’s way of rejuvenating, ensuring they maintain both their beauty and functionality.

Let’s delve into the captivating world of cardinal molting and discover the science behind this feathery makeover.

Key Takeaways

  • Molting Duration: The molting process is no swift change. Cardinals invest up to eight weeks shedding and regrowing their feathers.
  • Molting Frequency: Cardinals renew their feathers through molting once a year, typically during the late summer and early autumn.
  • Bald Cardinals: Don’t be alarmed by a bald cardinal. The reasons can range from molting, where they lose all their feathers, to other factors like self-plucking due to stress or conditions like alopecia.
  • Losing the Crest: It’s not common, but some cardinals may lose all their head feathers, and subsequently, their iconic crests, during molting. External factors like parasite infestations or poor nutrition can also be culprits for such loss.
  • Females and Molting: Female cardinals molt too but in a less extensive manner than males. While they primarily renew their wing and tail feathers, the overall process is subtler in females, rendering their post-molt plumage slightly duller than their male counterparts.
  • Molting Appearance: A cardinal mid-molt might raise eyebrows with its scruffy look, showcasing dull plumage, potential bare patches, or even a bald head. But rest assured, they regain their radiant appearance post-molt.
AspectDetails about Cardinal Molting
DefinitionMolting refers to the process of shedding and replacing old feathers with new ones.
PurposeTo replace old or damaged feathers and, in some birds, to acquire seasonal camouflage or courtship plumage. Cardinals molt to maintain efficient flight and insulation.
FrequencyOnce a year, typically in late summer to early fall.
DurationSeveral weeks. The exact duration can vary among individual birds.
Feather ReplacementFeathers are not lost all at once. Cardinals undergo a gradual molt, so they can still fly and perform daily activities.
Appearance During MoltingThey might appear scruffy or patchy due to uneven feather loss and growth.
Behavioral ChangesCardinals may be less active or visible during molting. They may also be more secretive to avoid predators due to decreased flying ability.
Dietary NeedsIncreased protein intake can be beneficial. Birds may forage more for insects during this period.
Effect on SingingMale cardinals might sing less frequently during molting.
Vulnerable to PredatorsYes, due to decreased flying ability. It’s important to provide safe spaces and cover during this time.

What Is Molting In Cardinals?

Cardinals typically undergo a single, complete molt each year. This typically occurs in late summer to early fall, after the breeding season has concluded. Here’s a deeper look into the molting process of cardinals:

  1. Reason for Molting: As with many birds, cardinals molt to replace damaged or worn-out feathers, ensuring they have a full, functional set of feathers for flight and insulation. Over time, a bird’s feathers can get frayed or lose their vibrant color, so molting helps to rejuvenate their appearance and maintain their health.
  2. The Process: The molting process in cardinals doesn’t happen all at once. They gradually lose and replace their feathers, ensuring they retain the ability to fly and keep warm. As old feathers fall out, new feather shafts begin to grow in their place.
  3. Appearance: During molting, cardinals may appear slightly disheveled or patchy as the new feathers push out the old ones. Their usually bright and crisp plumage might look duller or uneven, but this is temporary. As the new feathers fully grow in and the sheaths fall off, the cardinals’ vibrant colors return.
  4. Duration: The entire molting process for cardinals can last several weeks. It’s essential for the bird to have access to a steady food source during this period since growing new feathers requires extra energy.
  5. Implications: Molting can be a vulnerable time for cardinals. As they shed and regrow feathers, they might not fly as efficiently, making them more susceptible to predators. For this reason, providing a safe and bountiful food source in your backyard can be beneficial for molting cardinals.

Why Do Cardinals Molt?

Molting is necessary for the removal of old and damaged feathers. Feathers are much like human nails and hair. Once grown out, they are no longer living tissue and cannot repair themselves. Much like a broken nail, damaged feathers are discarded, and new feathers grow in place.

Some birds will molt multiple times not only for feather health but for change of plumage, which can have importance for breeding and seasonal camouflage.

Larger species are less likely to molt annually, rather than losing their primary and secondary feathers in intervals over a period of a few years so as not to become flightless. Some water birds may indeed become flightless for a short period during their molt.

How Long Do Cardinals Molt For?

Cardinals will molt for up to 12 weeks, and it takes this amount of time for them to lose and regrow all of their feathers.

Cardinals will look very much like most birds when molting, quite scruffy with the odd small bald spots, or in the case of bald Cardinals, with bald heads. New feathers will often look wrapped up as they begin to emerge in keratin sheaths.

Molting birds will spend a large part of their time preening as this helps the new feathers come out. The preening helps to remove the sheaths from the new feathers, and for a short period, it may appear like the bird has a small case of dandruff from the flakes of discarded sheaths.

How Do Cardinals Go Bald?

All birds molt, which means they shed old feathers to make way for new ones. Cardinals typically molt once a year. Sometimes, during this process, they might lose all their head feathers simultaneously before the new ones grow in. This can give them a bald appearance for a short time.

Mites or Lice:
Feather mites or lice can sometimes infest birds, leading to feather loss. If a cardinal is heavily infested, it might lose more feathers than usual, particularly around the head where it’s hard for the bird to preen.

Certain diseases or skin conditions can cause feather loss in birds. If a cardinal appears bald and also shows signs of distress, sickness, or other unusual behaviors, a disease could be the culprit.

Genetic Factors:
Occasionally, genetics might play a role in feather anomalies. Some birds might be predisposed to irregular molting patterns or sparse feathering.

Environmental Factors:
Factors like stress, trauma, or coming into contact with certain chemicals or pollutants can also lead to feather loss.

Common Questions on Cardinals Molting

What time of year do cardinals molt?

Northern cardinals typically begin their molting process in late summer, usually around July or August, and it can extend into early fall, you will often see them at the bird feeder looking bald. The male cardinals look more bear in the molting season.

How long does cardinal molting last?

The molting process for cardinals usually lasts for several weeks, often around 6 to 8 weeks, depending on the individual bird and environmental factors.

What happens when a cardinal molts?

When northern cardinals molt, it sheds its old, worn-out feathers and replaces them with new ones. This process ensures that the bird maintains a healthy set of feathers for insulation, display, and flight. During molting, cardinals might appear a bit ragged or patchy as new feathers grow in to replace the old ones.

Do Male and Female Cardinals Molt?

Yes, both male and female cardinals undergo the molting process. Molting is a natural and essential process for wild birds, allowing them to replace old or damaged feathers with new ones. This renewal ensures efficient flight, proper insulation against the elements, and a refreshed appearance. While the vibrant red coloration of the male cardinal might make the molting process more noticeable in them, female cardinals, with their more subdued tan and reddish hues, also molt annually to maintain the health and functionality of their feathers.

How many times a year do cardinals molt?

Cardinals typically molt once a year. This annual molt ensures they have fresh feathers for the winter months and the upcoming breeding season.

What does it mean when a cardinal is molting?

When a cardinal is molting, it’s undergoing a natural renewal process. Molting allows the bird to replace old or damaged feathers with new ones. It’s an essential process for the bird’s overall health, ensuring efficient flight, proper insulation, and an attractive appearance for mate attraction during the breeding season.

Do Juvenile Cardinals Molt?

Yes, juvenile cardinals do molt. After hatching, cardinals are initially covered in downy feathers. As they grow, they undergo a post-juvenile molt to replace these downy feathers with their first set of basic or “pre-formative” feathers. This initial molt typically occurs before the young bird’s first winter. The resulting plumage is often similar in appearance to adult female cardinals, regardless of the bird’s sex. As they age, subsequent molts will gradually transition the males into their vibrant red adult plumage and the females into their characteristic tan and reddish hues.

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