Birds gone bald: What’s up with that?


Are you scratching your head over bald Blue Jays or Northern Cardinals? They seem to be going about their bird work in the usual way, but something—a disease? an injury?—is weirdly wrong. Here’s what’s up with that.

First of all, it isn’t serious. When birds molt, which they do once or twice a year, we generally don’t notice it because the replacement of old feathers by new ones is staggered, with only a few disappearing and regrowing at a time.

Some Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays, however, molt to the beat of a different drummer—they drop all their head feathers at once, leaving them, well, as you see in these photos. Very bald and very strange-looking.

Side view of a bald Blue Jay standing on a railing.

Bald Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata (Thcipriani / Wiki; cc by-sa 4.0)

Experts believe bald birds may be juveniles undergoing their first “prebasic” molt after fledging, during which they replace all their feathers with adult winter plumage. Or maybe it’s something else. The Cornell Lab speculates that the temporary baldness could also result from feather mites or lice, nutritional deficits, or something in the bird’s environment.

Baldness is pretty common in Blue Jays and frequent enough to be considered normal among Northern Cardinals. Sometimes, other species of birds become bald, too.

More reading:

‘I am Orange Band,’ the sad saga of the last Dusky Seaside Sparrow   
The Buffalo News: Information and comments about bald birds
Farm and Dairy’s discussion about bald Northern Cardinals

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