About us: We own the Wild Birds Unlimited nature shop in East Lansing, Michigan,
a store that provides a wide variety of supplies to help you enjoy the birdwatching hobby.

This blog was created to answer frequently asked questions & to share nature stories and photographs.
To contribute, email me at bloubird@gmail.com.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What is That Red Bird with a Black Head?

I’ve had a couple calls lately trying to identify a new bird in the yard. The callers describe them as red birds with a black heads. Not black wings like a Scarlet Tanager, not orange like a Baltimore Oriole. The bird was a mystery to me until finally a customer was able to capture a picture of one of these unique birds showing up on feeders all across mid-Michigan.
Buzz12Image by frazier.susan via Flickr.
Mystery solved. They are Northern Cardinals going through an abnormal molt or replacement of feathers that leaves them bald. After nesting season most birds go through pre-basic molt that results in a covering of feathers, which will last until the next breeding season.

Buzz2Image by frazier.susan via FlickrSome Cardinals, Blue Jays, and Common Grackles go through an abnormal molt that leaves them bald and only their black skin showing for some weeks. Many appear to be juveniles undergoing their first pre-basic molt or growth of their first winter adult plumage. There are no scientific studies on why some of these birds are bald or why it’s just the head that goes completely bald all of a sudden.

I don’t believe there is anything wrong with most of these birds, despite how bad they look. The only other reason a bird might lose patches of feathers may be due to health problems such as malnutrition, mite infestation, or some unidentified disease.

Molting Blue Jay with NutImage by Princes Milady via FlickrEven though staggered feather replacement is the normal pattern for most birds, the bald birds you are seeing in your yards will be alright without any intervention and grow replacement feathers soon.

I have a couple bald cardinals and a whole family of bald Blue Jays. The jays have started to grow in the new feathers already. Right now they have short feathers on the side and taller ones down the middle of their head like blue faux hawks. Pretty cool!
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28 comments:

PianoPlayer said...

So glad you posted this! I have had some cardinals like this on my feeder lately and I was worried about them. I thought someone had shot at them or something. :( Glad to know this is normal, they do look pitiful so I'm glad to know they'll be OK.

Thanks!

-Angie
Monroe, NC

Wild Birds Unlimited Mid-Michigan said...

I've watched these funny looking birds visit our yard for decades. Sometimes I forget it's a new sight for many new bird watchers to see bald birds at the feeders.

Thanks for the comment! Sarah

telephone answering service said...

This is quite a new discovery for me, as I have never seen this type of bird before. I must appreciate your effort, great work, and very nice post.

Anonymous said...

This answers a question that has been nagging at me. The strange red bird that I have seen in my backyard in Gainesville Virginia did not appear to be bald. I thought is had black feathers on its head with no crest and a red beak. It is usually seen with a female cardinal. I was so confused by this that when I was in a book store, I looked in all the bird books trying to identify this strange bird. Mystery solved!!! Thanks.

Susan Hall Frazier said...

The photos of the northern bald cardinals shown here were taken in Alexandria, VA by me! We saw several bald northern cardinals each year at our backyard bird feeder. Their feathers eventually grew back, but for a while, they looked a bit unusual.

Susan Hall Frazier

Anonymous said...

From Jackson, MS. July 4 we saw a red bird with a blue head we had never seen before. It was the size of a cardinal, but was not acting like cardinals previously watched in our year. I wonder if it could be the same as the northern cardinals you mentioned.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous from Jackson, MS- we're in Madison, MS and also saw a Red bird with a black/blue head on July 4th. It was eating from our bird feeder.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate finding the answer to this mystery today. I was working in Eau Claire, Wisconsin when this particular bird came right into the house through the front door. Had a heck of a time getting it back out. It is quite ugly up close. haha. Thanks for the info.

Anonymous said...

We have seen one of these strange looking birds a couple of times..really weird looking!! Then it came again and we had more witnesses to this strange red bird..looked like it had a blackish/blueish leather helmet on!! Thanks for the info. We are in Canton, GA.

Anonymous said...

I saw the same exact thing yesterday here in Decatur Illinois, its good to see other people have seen them, I thought it must have been poisoned or had gotten into some chemical or otherwise.

Grandma Di said...

Thanks for posting. This was a first for us. Our weather in Texas has been a strange one and of all the Cardinals that come and go and nest in our yard I have never come up with them going bald on a molt. My husband and I went round and round on what this bird was and when I found your page that answered all our questions. Poor babies. They really look pitiful expecially in this 100 degree heat. dlm

Anonymous said...

Ditto ditto. Same story in Maryville TN. I've seen two, one "limping" with a hurt wing. Never before seen in my many-cardinal-ed back yard. Any possibility of causation by unusaully hot weather?

Anonymous said...

We have one that eats odd our feeder daily. Without feathers his head and neck look so frail.

Cape Cod Mass

Anonymous said...

Saw a red bird with a black head earlier this week. I have to admit this didn't look quite like these. He had a shiny black head. At least now I know. I seem to have strange looking birds showing up every year now.
I live in Donelson Tennessee.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post--the pictures are worth 1000 words. I've seen these birds in my feeders and wondered whether they had been in a fight or whether they were even cardinals. I've had bird feeders for years and had never seen these molting cardinals. Nashville, TN

Anonymous said...

We saw one land on our deck railing in Stevensville, MI. After looking through bird books in an unsuccessful attempt to identify the bird, I found your site. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I have seen the same kind of bird you described. It's head is shinny black like a helmet. It does not appear to have lost feathers.

Concord, NC

Anonymous said...

July 10, 2013. We have one of these wierd looking cardinals coming to our bird feeder in Kitty Hawk, NC. I'm not sure if it is only one bird, but have been seeing a bald cardinal for over a month. There is still no trace of new feathers.

Anonymous said...

We have them at our feeders here in Louisville, Ky. Couldn't figure out what they were until we saw this site. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

We saw this bird in our backyard several times in Charlotte, NC, and we thought we were going crazy! It was a fat red bird with a blue/black head and an orange beak, and it looked like a small parrot. After many attempts to identify it, we finally found your site! Thank you for the information!

Anonymous said...

Bird in SC July 25, 2013 Saw one of these birds this morning on my deck. Had never seen one before, head was black, red bill and red feathers on body. Hampton SC lowcountry

Anonymous said...

I live in CT and thought that there was some mutant bird at my feeder. Checked my bird book and could not find anything that looked like this. So happy to find out that it is a normal bird.

Anonymous said...

Just saw one in Augusta, Ga. Glad to know what it is.

swilliams2007 said...

Just saw one in the Atlanta area and had never seen one before.

DSS51 said...

I am looking at one right now sitting at the feeder in our backyard near Dayton Ohio. I was puzzled so I thought I'd check the internet! Glad to know what it is too!

Anonymous said...

Grand Rapids MI,Three years in a row we have the same question, seems nobody could answer the question. Thanks, problem solved. We go to great lengths to cater to our feathered friends.

Shawn Wood said...

I have noticed that many of the post are seeing this bird in northern areas , but we live in clarksville Tennessee and we have one in the bush right outside our bedroom window and not just that but she has placed a nest there .so now we have 3 baby bird in a nest outside our bedroom window and its really cute to hear them cherping .

Anonymous said...

I see lots of birds in my back yard in Pensacola FL that look exactly like male cardinals. They even have red beaks but no crest and heads are shiny black.