Can Birds Go Bald?

Come late summer, you may see bald birds hanging around your feeders. Here's why.

From your kitchen window or back porch, you catch the crimson and blue flashes of Cardinals and Blue Jays. Watching birds swoop in for a birdfeeder snack is often a soothing respite from the daily grind . . . until you catch a glimpse of a bald bird. Is the world really so stressful that even birds experience mid-life hair feather loss? Every year ornithologists and birding experts receive worried inquiries about bald birds that look like tiny vultures hanging around feeders. These reports frequently involve Blue Jays and Cardinals sporting some seriously funky styles. Some birds flaunt scraggly mohawks, while others look as if they have taken an electric shaver to their entire heads. While this can be an alarming sight, it is not necessarily a cause for concern. Let's explore what ails our balding buddies.

What causes bird baldness?

The causes of bird baldness are not fully known, but according to Emma Greig, Project Leader of FeederWatch at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, may include:

Molting: Many bald bird sightings take place from late summer to early fall. Birds typically molt during these weeks, taking advantage of the down time between nesting season and migration. The molting process normally occurs in stages, so that none of the bird's skin is left exposed. Sometimes this process goes awry, and a bird loses all the feathers on its head at once. This happens most often to juvenile birds undergoing their first molt.

Mites: An unfortunate bird may be infested by mites, whose feeding destroys the shafts of its feathers. The bird will remove the offending arthropods by preening, but won't be able to reach its own head. So, the mites will nibble undisturbed on the shafts of the bird's head feathers, causing them to fall out.

Nutritional deficiencies and disease: Some scientists consider poor nutrition and disease to be potential causes of baldness in birds, but no research has been conducted which conclusively confirms their suspicions.

Will the bird get better?

Fortunately, bald birds will usually recover from their bad feather days on their own. Downy feathers will appear within a week, and within two weeks the head feathers will have grown back completely.

Can I do anything to help?

Because it is possible the baldness is caused by a nutritional deficiency, it can't hurt to provide nutritionally dense food in your feeders. Ornithologists recommend never feeding birds food that is low in nutrition, such as bread or crackers, and instead suggest healthier options such as black oil sunflower seeds and peanut butter mixed with cornmeal.