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Palm warbler’s name an unfortunate misnomer that has stuck

Photo by Jean Potter The palm warbler’s name is a mistaken assumption that this warbler held special affinity for palm trees. It doesn’t.

The warbler parade that begins each autumn with such brightly colored migrants as Blackburnian warbler, black-throated blue warbler and magnolia warbler usually ends with some of the less vibrant members of this family of New World birds.

On a recent bird walk at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee, I helped locate a flock of 13 palm warblers and a single yellow-rumped warbler. These two warblers, which look rather brownish and nondescript in the fall, pass through the region later than most other migrating warblers. In fact, the yellow-rumped warbler is one of the few warblers that routinely spends the winter months in the region.

The yellow-rumped warbler has a most suitable name thanks to the yellow patch of feathers on the bird’s rump. The resemblance of the patch to a pat of butter is uncanny enough to have encouraged birders to nickname this often abundant winter warbler the “butter butt.”

The palm warbler’s name is, at best, a misnomer. Throughout most of its life, the palm warbler doesn’t even encounter palm trees. Johann Friedrich Gmelin, a German naturalist who lived from 1748 to 1804, saddled the palm warbler with its inappropriate name. Gmelin based his naming of the bird based on the fact that a specimen had been collected on Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean with an abundance of palm trees.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Palm Warbler forages along a chain-link fence.

Gmelin published several textbooks in the fields of chemistry, pharmaceutical science, mineralogy, and botany. He also had a hand in publishing a catalog of scientific names for various species, including some birds that had until that point never been given a species classification. Thanks to his efforts, a warbler has forever been linked with a type of tree that is, at best, entirely incidental to the bird’s life cycle.

Early naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted these palm warblers.

Palm warblers do seek out warmer domains during the winter months, including the islands of the Caribbean. Some of them do not even migrate that far, choosing to remain along the Gulf and Atlantic coastlines of the southern United States. On occasion, individual palm warblers choose to remain in northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia or western North Carolina during the winter months.

Every spring, however, palm warblers make a long migration flight north. This warbler is one of the northernmost breeding warblers, spending the summer months in the boreal forests of Canada. They build their nests in the thickets surrounding the many bogs along the edges of the great coniferous forests of this region of Canada.

The female palm warbler lays four to five eggs, but both parents will stay busy collecting insects once the young hatch. On an insect-rich diet, the young birds develop quickly and are able to leave the nest in 12 days. They will remain with their parents as their wings strengthen and they learn to fend for themselves.

While not able to flaunt vibrant plumage like such relatives as the Cape May warbler or the American redstart, the palm warbler is not truly as unattractive as a first glance might suggest. In fact, one subspecies, known as the “yellow palm warbler,” is quite dramatic in appearance with a profusion of yellow feathers accented with a bold russet cap and dramatic rufous striping across the yellow underparts. Even in autumn, the other palm warblers are not devoid of color. Most palm warbler show a splash of bright yellow on the throat and beneath the tail.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A black-and-white warbler creeps over the bark of a pine in search of insect prey. The reason for this warbler’s common name is self-evident in its appearance.

In fall migration and during the winter season, palm warblers often inhabit weedy fields, grasping the dried stalks of tall weeds as they forage for berries, seeds and insects and their larvae. Look for the spot of yellow beneath the warbler’s tail, which is constantly bobbed up and down as the bird goes about its routine. The tail-bobbing behavior is a good way to distinguish this warbler from the sparrows of similar size and brown coloration that often share the fields and woodland edges.

The last of the October Saturday bird walks will be held at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park on Oct. 26. Participants should meet in the parking lot at the park’s visitors center at 8 a.m. for a 90-minute stroll along the gravel walking trails. The walks are conducted by the Elizabethton Bird Club and are free and open to the public. Bring binoculars to increase viewing enjoyment. There’s a chance that palm warblers will be seen on the walk, but with our fine feathered friends, nothing is ever guaranteed.

Photo by Jean Potter • A “yellow” palm warbler searches leaf litter for insects and other prey items.

 

Water a magnet for waxwings, other birds

Photo by Patrice_Audet/Pixabay.com • Cedar waxwings feed extensively on various fruits and insects, forming large nomadic flocks that can quickly deplete local resources.

The extended spell of dry, hot weather we’ve experienced for the past several weeks threatens to spoil fall colors, but if you’re a person who can offer a water feature or bird bath, this might be the perfect time to observe thirsty flocks of birds. In particular, cedar waxwings, which often travel in large flocks, embrace water with an exceptional avian enthusiasm.

I still remember my first look at a cedar waxwing. Sleek as silk, wearing a mask like a bandit, with a jaunty crest atop its head, this fairly common bird commands attention when making an appearance in a yard or garden. Of course, it’s usually not alone, more often traveling as a member of a larger flock that can number as high as dozens or even hundreds of individuals.

Flocks of these sociable birds win fans almost anywhere they go. Chances of luring these birds to your home and property can increase by offering some essential requirements. Tall trees, especially those that bear fruit, are attractive to these sociable birds. It’s more often water, not food, however, that will bring a flock of these birds close. They love a good splash in a bath, whether the source is a shallow stream or an ornamental pool set into the landscape.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A pair of cedar waxwings hawk for insects near a pond.

As noted, they travel in often sizable flocks, usually in search of new food sources. The many members comprising a flock can deplete resources in a remarkably short time. During the winter season, I’ve watched a flock of waxwings make short work of a harvest of berries from a holly tree. Their nomadic lifestyles make it nearly impossible to predict where cedar waxwings might make an appearance.

In most years, the wild cherry trees scattered around the edges of my yard are fully laden with berries. As they ripen in late August and into September, waxwings appear and commence harvesting the fruit. Once again, they arrived at just the right time last month to catch the wild cherries at their peak.

As much as the waxwing has a fondness for fruit, it’s also a bird that would have made an excellent flycatcher. Flocks of these birds will often congregate in trees near the edge of a pond, garden or yard — anywhere winged insects might be found in good numbers — in order to hawk insects on the wing. A waxwing will sally forth from a branch, snatch its prey in mid-air, and return to its perch for a quick snack.

Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of cedar waxwings.

Perhaps because of the late-summer abundance of bugs and berries, cedar waxwings are known for nesting late into the summer. They’re certainly not among the birds impatient to begin nesting as soon as temperatures turn mild in the spring. Some fellow birders recently reported seeing cedar waxwings feeding fledgling just out of the nest as the calendar flipped from September of October.

Why is the term “waxwing” applied to this bird? According to the website All About Birds, the name comes from the waxy red secretions found on the tips of wing feathers. The site also notes that the precise function of these waxy tips is not known. There’s speculation among some experts that the bright red tips on the feathers could play a role in helping waxwings attract mates.

The cedar waxwing has few relatives. Worldwide, there are only two other species: the Bohemian waxwing, of the northern forests of Eurasia and North America; and the Japanese waxwing, found in such northeast Asian countries as Japan, Korea and China.

Although it’s classified as a songbird, the cedar waxwing does’t truly produce a vocalization that anyone would contend qualifies as a song. They are, however, very vocal birds, producing shrill, high-pitched notes as they pass through the upper branches of tall trees. The excitable commotion of an active flocks of these sleek and elegant birds is always a welcome sound at my home.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The waxy tips to the wing feathers are evident in this photograph of a cedar waxwing.

‘Science’ article warns that people need to focus on the needs of disappearing birds

Photo by Pixabay.com • Birds are disappearing. Some populations have seen a dangerous decline. Loggerhead shrikes are declining across the continent, and the reasons are complicated but can ultimately be traced to human activity.

Imagine the sky growing dark and, looking up, you notice that the cause is not approaching storm clouds but a passage of birds — millions of individual birds, their wings darkening the skies as they pass overhead.

The early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon once described the passage of enormous flocks of passenger pigeons that blotted out the light “as by an eclipse” and described the noise of the multitude of wings “like thunder.” His observation of these flocks took place in 1813. A century later, the world’s last passenger pigeon, a species that had ranked as one of the continent’s most numerous birds, died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Legislation like the Endangered Species Act can and does save birds like the Bald Eagle from possible extinction.

The passenger pigeon was the avian equivalent of the American bison, albeit with a more tragic outcome. Bison, also commonly called buffalo, still survive. As with the bison, we’ve had avian rescue success stories — whooping cranes, Kirtland’s warblers, bald eagles — with efforts to bring some birds back from the brink of extinction. At the same time, we’ve lost others, including the ivory-billed woodpecker, the eskimo curlew and Bachman’s warbler. Now a new study indicates that our birds may be under assault as never before.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Northern cardinal visits a feeder.

The journal Science dropped a bombshell article recently about declining bird numbers in North America. The article’s claim that nearly 3 billion — that’s billion with a “b” — fewer wild birds exist on the continent than in 1970 is a shocking figure, but the sad fact is that the article probably doesn’t come as a complete surprise to birders or even backyard bird enthusiasts. The evidence of our own eyes and ears confirms the details of the comprehensive study reported in the pages of Science. There are fewer birds, which has been becoming painfully clear over the past few decades.

I first got into birding in 1993. Now, 26 years later, I have noticed some of the declines in just the past quarter of a century. Every autumn, the variety and numbers of migrating warblers that visit my yard has gone down.

The new study in Science focuses on the drop in sheer numbers of birds. According to most experts, the bird population in the United States and Canada was probably around 10.1 billion individual birds nearly half a century ago. That number has fallen 29 percent to about 7.2 billion birds, an alarming loss of nearly 3 billion birds just in North America.

I have personally noticed signs of this dramatic loss. Let me share some personal anecdotes. These stories don’t serve as definitive proof, but they add to my unease about the state of our feathered friends.

For one thing, I no longer host large flocks of birds at my feeders during the winter. One would expect birds to mass in sizable flocks in the vicinity of feeders during a season when resources can be scarce. In the 1990s, I hosted flocks of pine siskins and evening grosbeaks that numbered in the hundreds and dozens, respectively. At times, large flocks of American goldfinches, purple finches and house finches flocked to my feeders, too. I haven’t seen an evening grosbeak since 2001. Pine siskins still visit, but I consider myself fortunate to host a flock that numbers a dozen or more.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A pine siskin in a spruce at Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain.

The sights and sounds of summer have changed, too. Two of the most dependable summer songsters used to be Northern bobwhite by day and Eastern whip-poor-will after dark. I haven’t heard a whip-poor-will at home in more than 20 years. The last time I heard a Northern bobwhite was about a decade ago. I live in a rural area that used to be fairly agricultural. The disappearances of bobwhite quail and whip-poor-wills is reported throughout the ranges of these two species.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Some birds have grown even more common in recent decades. Regionally, look at birds like great blue herons, double-crested cormorants, and cliff swallows, which have also shown an increased presence.

What killed the passenger pigeon? People did. What’s caused the precipitous drop in bird numbers since the 1970s in North America? Once again, people must shoulder most of the blame. We have destroyed or altered habitats essential for birds to thrive. We’ve paid little attention to the signals from some of these kin of the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” that something’s wrong in nature.

Yet “hope is the thing with feathers,” as the poet Emily Dickinson phrased it, and the losses are a signal to pay attention, not to panic. Birds are amazingly resilient. Birds need only the same things as humans — food, shelter, water. Well, perhaps they need one more thing. Birds require a safe and welcoming space in which to unfurl their wings and fly.

The great flocks of passenger pigeons may be no more, but there’s no reason to think our remaining birds can’t continue to soar, so long as we provide them with their essential needs and offer them a degree of protection and compassion.

An artist sketched this scene of hunters firing on one of the last great flocks of passenger pigeons.

Birds are not the only fall migrants sharing the skies

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Experts have documented long-distance migration flights by the Wandering Glider, a species of dragonfly.

Rhonda Eller of Chilhowie, Virginia, posted a question on my Facebook page about some dragonflies that appeared in her yard on Sept. 10.

“We have had a sudden breakout of dragonflies in our yard,” Rhonda explained. “We seldom see more than one or two at a time.”

Rhonda wondered if the dragonflies might have been drawn to her yard in pursuit of some sort of favorite insect prey. She also speculated that the recent dry conditions might have attracted the dragonflies.

I responded to her query by explaining that birds are not the only migrant in the skies at this time of year. Some dragonflies, just like birds, migrate. A species known as green darner is one that migrates. These darners are rather large, for a dragonfly, and travel in swarms. A couple of years ago I observed thousands of these dragonflies swarming over a municipal swimming pool and a nearby fish pond at a park in Erwin, Tennessee.

The WSLS Channel 10 television station out of Roanoke, Virginia, reported on swarms of dragonflies so large that they got picked up by local radar. Rhonda shared a link to the station’s story on my Facebook page.

Photo by Jean Potter • A common nighthawk rests on a metal railing.

Of course, swarms of migrating insects are bound to get the attention of predatory birds. The same day that Rhonda experienced the influx of migrating dragonflies, I witnessed dozens of common nighthawks and chimney swifts swooping through the skies over my home. With a little more attention to detail, I also noticed the dragonflies sharing the skies with these birds.

I suspect that the nighthawks were feeding on the large darners while the swifts, which are much smaller birds, focused their foraging efforts on smaller winged insects. Tom McNeil, a neighbor and fellow member of the Elizabethton Bird Club, reported seeing nighthawks and swifts, too. Tom lives on the other side of a mountain ridge that separates our homes.

Tim Morris, a Facebook friend from Australia, noted in a comment on my post about the nighthawks that his country is home a bird known as the tawny frogmouth, a relative of the common nighthawk. Tim noted that frogmouths are big birds with camouflage markings that allow them to pretend to be dead tree boughs by day. “They feed not only on insects but mice and lizards, too,” he added.

Evidence of fall migration continued the next day when I detected a small wave of warblers foraging in trees at the edge of my yard. I saw five different species — American redstart, worm-eating warbler, Cape May warbler, Blackburnian warbler and Tennessee warbler — in the space of half an hour. Of the warblers in the flock, the Blackburnian and Cape May are some of the more vibrant ones.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • While the Cape May warbler doesn’t breed locally, these warblers are fairly common spring and fall migrants in the region.

The Blackburnian warbler’s common name commemorates Anna Blackburne, an English naturalist who lived from 1726 to 1793. Her brother, Ashton, had immigrated to the United States, which made it possible for him to send his sister many specimens, especially birds. Their father, a salt merchant by trade, was also a well-respected amateur naturalist. In addition to the warbler that bears her name, Anna Blackburne also had a species of beetle named in her honor.

Both the Cape May and Tennessee warblers are named for the locations from which they were first collected. Neither of these small songbirds are closely affiliated with Cape May, New Jersey, or the Volunteer State. The Cape May warbler is also known as the “tiger warbler” for the dramatic black striping across its bright yellow breast. A green back and chestnut cheek patch make the Cape May warbler quite unlike any of its close kin. Even its scientific name — Setophaga tigrina — pays homage to the striped big cat. The term “setophaga” translates to “moth eater” and is a reference to this warbler’s intense fondness for the caterpillars known as spruce budworms that occasionally produce outbreaks in the northern spruce forests that serve as the nesting range for the Cape May warbler.

 

Photo by insitedesigns/Pixabay • A Cape May warbler peers from its perch on a tree branch.

According to the website, “All About Birds,” Cape May warblers have unusually shaped tongues that allow them to sip nectar from tropical flowers during the winter months spent in Central America and the Caribbean. Their unique tongues also make it possible for them to enjoy sips of sugar water from hummingbird feeders.

Whether its dragonflies, nighthawks, warblers or hummingbirds, plenty of birds and other flying creatures will be moving through the region for the next few weeks. Now’s the time to get outdoors and look for some of these migrants.

Photo by insitedesigns/Pixabay.com • The Cape May warbler migrates out of North America every fall to spend the winter in Central America and the Caribbean.

Welcoming Eastern towhees into yards, gardens easy to accomplish

Photo by Ken Thomas • A male Eastern towhee forages for food in the grass beneath a feeder.

It’s the time of year when young birds start making their first forays to feeders, usually accompanied by their parents and siblings. In recent weeks, I’ve seen everything from young brown thrashers and tufted titmice to ruby-throated hummingbirds and Eastern bluebirds.

Ann Windsor posted an interesting photo on my Facebook page last month that illustrates this emergence of a new generation of feathered friends. Her photo showed a male Eastern towhee escorting one of his offspring to a feeder on the deck of Ann’s home in Selmer, Tennessee.

Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted these Eastern towhees.

Her post followed up a video she had posted of a pair of towhees visiting her feeder.

“I wanted to share with you about our towhee bird,” Ann noted in her post. “We call him ‘pretty boy,’ and he has been coming to our feeder now for two years or more.”

Back in early June, the male towhee showed up with a female for the first time. “She was more comfortable around us and got in the feeder with him,” Ann wrote. “We have so enjoyed him.”

Ann has made some interesting observations about the male towhee. “When he is in the little feeder dish, he’s the boss,” she wrote. “Any other birds come along, even the blue jays, and he runs them off.”

Photo by Pixabay.com • Female Eastern towhees are retain the male’s white and rusty-orange plumage, but they are brown instead of black like their male counterparts.

Ann’s day-to-day encounters with the towhees has turned into a “fun relationship” as the birds have learned to trust her enough that they don’t fly away when she’s in the yard.

I mentioned in a response to her first posting that the towhees would likely bring their young to her feeders once they left the nest. Indeed, about a month later, Ann posted another photo. In this particular picture, the male towhee arrives at the feeder with one of his recently fledged young.

“We have seen three so far,” Ann noted. She added that the young towhee in the photo loves to get up in one of the flower pots and dig around.

“I was wondering, as the young ones grow up, do they stay in the area, or do they go off to find their own territory?” Ann asked at the end of her post.

In my response, I told Ann that many birds have fidelity to the place where they were born, but things could get crowded if the adult birds also stay put. The parent towhees will probably “encourage” the young birds to strike out on their own and establish their own territories as adults. They might, however, become “neighbors” and choose a location not too far from her home.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Eastern towhee scratches for seeds on the ground beneath a feeder.

Eastern towhees spend a considerable amount of time on the ground and hidden in thickets and hedges. Other common names for this bird includes “ground robin” and “swamp robin.”€ They are one of the larger members of the sparrow family, however, and not related to the thrush family, which includes such birds as American robin, Eastern bluebird and wood thrush.

Unlike the many “€œbrown”€ members of the sparrow family, the Eastern Towhee is a brightly colored bird. Males have a black hood. The black coloration extends into the back and tail. The belly is white, and the sides are flanked with a rusty-red orange. In flight, their black tails are bordered with white feathers, which produces a dramatic flash of contrasting colors. The female Eastern Towhee is an attractive bird in her own right. She shares the rufous sides and white coloration that are present in the male’s plumage. However, the male’€™s black feathers are replaced by a warm, chocolate brown plumage in the female.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Eastern Towhee visits a feeder in July. The chance to see young birds is a great reason to offer food during the summer, but some precautions should be taken to minimize uninvited guests.

The Eastern towhee is one of my favorite yard birds, but not just because of its dramatic appearance. These birds also have some instantly recognizable vocalizations. With the arrival of spring, the males will seek elevated perches for extensive singing bouts to attract mates and establish territories. Their song has been interpreted, quite aptly, as “Drink your tea!” They also have some alarm notes, such as “€œChew-ink”€ and “€œToe-Hee,” which is the basis for this bird’s common name.

The sparrows known as towhees are spread across two different genuses and consist of Abert’s towhee, California towhee and canyon towhee in the Melozone genus and the Eastern towhee, spotted towhee, green-tailed towhee, and collared towhee in the genus Pipilo. The genus name Pipilo is derived from Latin and roughly translates as “the chirping bunting.”

Keep watching your feeders. At this time of year, they provide one of the best venues for observing quality family time among our feathered friends.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Eastern towhee peeks from the grass as she forages on the ground.

Pigeons belong to a remarkable and diverse family of birds

 

Photo by Karen McSharry • This rock pigeon made a recent visit to a home in Bristol, Virginia. Not native to North America, the pigeon has been here almost since the first Europeans arrived on the continent.

Karen McSharry, a resident of Bristol, Tennessee, emailed me recently with some photos asking for help in determining an identification of the bird depicted in her photos.

“This fellow made a sharp descent and landed on my deck with a thud,” Karen wrote. “He just stood there, seemed stunned and didn’t move or make a sound.”

After an hour or so, her husband picked the bird up and set him in the wooded area behind their house.

“He doesn’t seem to be there now, over a week later,” she added.

Karen said that at first glance pigeon came to mind as she tried to identify her visiting feathered friend. “But his head is bigger and black,” she wrote. “There didn’t seem to be any iridescence.”

Photo by Pixabay.com • The Nicobar pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica) is a striking wild pigeon in appearance that is found on small islands and in coastal regions from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India, east through the Malay Archipelago, to the Solomons and Palau.

I wrote back and told Karen to trust her instincts. The bird she photographed was indeed a pigeon, known more formally as rock pigeon.

Once also known as rock doves, this pigeon is not native to North America, but the species has been here almost from the time the first Europeans began to sail to the shores of what eventually became the United States and Canada. The rock pigeon is native to Europe, Africa and parts of Asia, but the species has long been domesticated. Pigeons display a lot of variety in their appearance. Through artificial selection, the rock pigeon has been bred into all sorts of other patterns and colors beyond the wild bird’s standard appearance.

I don’t usually get pigeons at my home, although I did once have a domesticated bird visit my feeders for a few days. This particular bird had a band on one leg. I found out later it was a “homing” pigeon, which are pigeons trained to carry messages. After they deliver their message, they return “home,” hence the term “homing pigeon.” But they are still basically just a domesticated variety of rock pigeon.

Gordon Randall Smith, a resident of Saltville, Virginia, might be one of the region’s foremost authorities on pigeons. Eighty-one years old, he has bred pigeons for the past 76 years. He’s also raised game chickens and described his place as once being “like a zoo.”

Photo by Pixabay.com • The Victoria crowned pigeon (Goura victoria) is a large, bluish-grey pigeon with elegant blue lace-like crests, maroon breast, and red irises. A wild bird, this pigeon shows that nature is just as inventive as humans at giving some birds unusual and outlandish appearances.

Gordon has understandable difficulty naming a favorite domestic pigeon strain. “With hundreds of breeds available, choice becomes overwhelming,” Gordon wrote. “Throughout years of close relationships and interested involvement, preferences creep in.”

After consideration, he identified the Bohemian fairy swallow as his favorite variety of pigeon, followed by Chinese owls, crested helmets and Budapest muffed stork tumblers, as well as Lahore and Indian ribbon tailed fantails.

An uncle, Landon Smith, introduced him to the love for the propagation of a variety of domestic pigeons. “I’ve been a fancier, breeder and vivid admirer of birds throughout my amazing and very fruitful life on this planet earth,” Gordon wrote in a letter.

“I was introduced to a covey of ringneck mourning doves and pigeons at uncle Landon Smith’s passing,” Gordon noted. He described his uncle as a very dedicated person who kept various birds, animals and even exotic creatures of nature.

I looked up some of these whimsical names online. Although the basic pigeon stock is apparent in their makeup, these fanciful breeds truly show how enthusiastically the rock pigeon has embraced domestication.

In the wild, rock pigeons display an affinity for nesting and roosting on cliffs and rock ledges, hence the bird’s common name. Feral pigeons in large cities like New York have merely substituted high rises and skysrcapers for craggy cliffs.

Pigeons and doves constitute the avian family Columbidae and the order Columbiformes, which includes about 42 genera and 310 species. North America is home to several native doves, including the mourning dove, Inca dove, common ground dove, ruddy ground dove and white-winged dove. The latter was made famous in a refrain in the song “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks.

Other doves and pigeons found around the globe include such fancifully named birds as pink-necked green pigeon, lemon dove, silvery pigeon, black cuckoo-dove, pheasant pigeon, purple-tailed imperial pigeon, topknot pigeon, common emerald dove, blue-headed wood dove, ruddy quail-dove, red-billed pigeon and Victoria crown pigeon. The diversity of form and function among wild doves and pigeons rivals anything that has been produced in their domesticated kin.

The now-extinct dodo was arguably the most famous member of the diverse family that includes pigeons and doves.

Cardinals don’t always look their best during late summer

Photo Courtesy of Gina Fannin • This female Northern cardinal, with a head devoid of feathers, appeared at a home in Cincinnati, Ohio. Although these strange looking cardinals often surprise people, they are not all that uncommon in late summer.

Gina Fannin wrote about an unusual observation of a follicly challenged Northern cardinal at her home in Cincinnati, Ohio. The bird in question, a female cardinal, had lost most of the feathers on her head. Gina took a photo of the bird, which she sent with her email, in which she asked if I have ever encountered a cardinal with such a problem.

Gina said that she has seen male cardinals suffering from baldness, but never a female. “I’ve lived here 24 years, and this is the first time I’ve seen a bald female,” she wrote in her email.

I replied to Gina by informing her that I’ve heard of these strange instances for many years. Bald-headed cardinals seem to be a summer occurrence. I usually get some emails or calls this time of year about people surprised by visits from “weird bald-headed” cardinals. I first began to get calls and email from readers in the late 1990s about this unusual phenomenon that seems to usually afflict cardinals, although I have also seen blue jays suffering from this same ailment.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This female Northern cardinal, shown with one of her offspring at a feeder in late summer, is exhibiting some problems with her feather molt.

I have studied the opinions of various bird experts, but there doesn’t seem to be consensus about the cause. Some believe the “baldness” is caused by an infestation of mites, which are small relatives of spiders and other arachnids. Others believe that the loss of feathers around the head is a part of a normal molting process. This theory is supported by the fact that cardinals do undergo molting in late summer, usually after the conclusion of the nesting season.

The process of molting removes old feathers, which simply drop from the body as new feathers emerge to take their place. For some reason, some cardinals and jays lose all their head feathers at one time before new feathers are ready to take their place. That’s why the condition is typically observed in the summer months. Both male and female cardinals can be afflicted with “bald” heads. It’s strange that the condition primarily affects these two birds, cardinals and jays, both of which have feather crests. On the other hand, cedar waxwings are also crested birds, but I have never observed or received a report on a “bald-headed” cedar waxwing.

Whatever the cause, a “bald-headed” cardinal is an ugly bird. Without feathers, a cardinal is transformed from a showy favorite among bird enthusiasts to a rather grotesque oddity that could aptly be described as resembling a scavenging vulture. Birds like vultures, however, have heads devoid of feathers for a very important reason: As scavengers, a feathered head would become quickly fouled as the bird reaches into the carcasses of dead animals to feed.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This young Northern cardinal visits a feeder in the Atlanta suburbs.

The cardinals I have seen with “bald” heads have been visiting feeders stocked with sunflower seeds or perhaps a holder offering a suet cake. So, the absence of feathers is not a hygienic adaptation on the part of cardinals and jays similar to the hygienic necessity of bald heads among vultures. The good news is that the condition is temporary. The normal molt for a Northern cardinal takes two or three months. The feathers on the head do emerge eventually, which is probably very fortunate for the afflicted birds. Feathers serve as insulation during cold weather. A “bald-headed” cardinal would probably have difficulty surviving winter cold spells.

We’re all accustomed to seeing cardinals at our feeders, but people who feed birds would probably be surprised by how much food cardinals and other feeder visitors obtain away from our well-stocked offerings. During the summer months, cardinals eat a variety of wild seeds, fruit and insects. Some of the fruit consumed by cardinals include elderberry, dogwood, blackberry and wild grapes. Young cardinals still in the nest (and fledglings for some time after leaving the nest) are fed mostly insects, including crickets, spiders, moths and flies.

To make cardinals comfortable in every season, offer plenty of thick vegetation, such as a hedge or row of shrubs, and consider planting some of the fruit trees and shrubs that will help these beautiful birds supplement their diet.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Northern cardinal with most of her head featherless.