Wild Wanderings: Northern Cardinals

Photo | Orietta C. Estrada This healthy northern cardinal is going through its post-breeding molt.

Photo | Orietta C. Estrada
This healthy northern cardinal is going through its post-breeding molt.

What’s Wrong With This Bird?

“What’s wrong with this bird?” is a common question I receive, especially this time of year. What happens is that a regular feeder bird shows up at a birdwatcher’s home and it looks as though something is very, very wrong. The homeowner often describes the bird as “balding,” which is an accurate description: just look at the Kojak-like look of the adult northern cardinal in the photograph accompanying this article. (All that’s missing is a lollipop!)

So, what’s wrong with this bird? Nothing. It’s molting. Molting is the process in which a bird drops old feathers and new ones grow in their place. It isn’t always a uniform affair, which accounts for the odd appearance. During the summer and fall, after the nesting and breeding seasons have come to a close, it’s not uncommon to spot these funky-looking molt patterns on birds.


Birds are the only creature on Earth with feathers. Feathers are made out of keratin, the same structural material that our hair and nails are composed of, which means that they are subject to damage and wear. The shaft of the feather that grows from the bird’s body is called the calamus, and the portion of the feature toward the tip is called the rachis. Extending from the shaft are barbs and extending from the barbs are barbules. Barbules interlock and hold the barbs together; this assists in flight by creating a single surface for air to flow over.

In addition to flight, feathers help regulate temperature, hide birds from predators, and attract mates; therefore, it’s important for feathers to be in good condition. In order to keep them in tip-top shape, periodically, they need to be replaced.

What’s underneath?

This cardinal’s bright-red crown is missing, along with all of the other feathers on its head, including the nape, auriculars, malar and throat. Furthermore, its body feathers look scruffy. Even though the bird is in aesthetic limbo, what’s revealed is worth discussing. I mean, when was the last time you had a good look at a bird’s ear? Located behind and below the eye is the ear opening, as seen in the photograph.

Birds have excellent hearing (owls have superior hearing to other species), but don’t have external ears like we do. A bird’s  ears are only seen beneath their feathers and, with the exception of the hatchling stage of a bird’s life cycle, molting periods offer good opportunities to see these hidden parts.

Did you know that the colors of a cardinal’s feathers are actually white toward the skin, gray and black in the middle, and only red at the tips? You can see this and compare to other species on a windy day, when a bird is facing away from the wind and its feathers become ruffled. But a great time for long looks is during a molt.

Bird ID tip

The adult male northern cardinal in the photograph accompanying this article is a good example of how a bird can look during the molting process. But how can we tell that the bird is an adult male cardinal? In cardinals, the adults have bright orange bills while the immature birds have black or multi-colored bills. How can we ID the bird as male? The males are cardinal-red, if you will, and the females are olive-toned with burnt-orange highlights.