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Why Does a Cardinal Lose Its Crest?

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Pity the poor cardinal that loses its crest. The striking, brilliant red bird with the majestic feathers atop its head is suddenly a bald, bluish-headed wonder. Even worse, he looks as bewildered as the bird-watchers who gaze on him with dismay. Not all cardinals lose their crests, however. Whatever its causes -- and they can be one of several -- the regal feathers do grow back within about a week.

A Bad, Mad Molt

All birds molt, or lose their feathers. For most, molting occurs once every year, usually in late summer and fall. Most molting involves losing old feathers gradually, so it's barely noticeable. Several feathers at a time fall out and new ones grow back in. In some birds, however, molting seems to go mad, and they lose all their head feathers at once. For the cardinal, that means losing the crest, which is perhaps his most distinctive feature.

Pesky Parasites

The loss of all feathers at one time can be caused by lice. Many birds get lice, especially wild birds or birds that live outdoors. Lice live in the bird's feathers and eat away at them. A bad case can cause all the feathers to fall out at once. Lice are more of a problem in the early fall, which is when bald cardinals tend to be spotted. Such birds may also have bare patches elsewhere on the body. While preening tends to keep lice infestations down, the top of the head may be more difficult to reach. Once all the feathers fall out, the lice cannot live, so the feathers that grow back are not infested.

The Cupboard is Bare

Poor nutrition can also cause feathers to fall out all at once. Cardinals eat a varied diet of insects, spiders, wild fruits, berries and seeds, so finding enough food is normally not a problem. When a habitat is threatened by abnormal circumstances, however, such as drought that cause food supplies to shrivel up or water to become scarce, the bird's health can suffer. It's also more common at certain times of year in certain areas -- such as winter snows in the north and drought in the west and south. To help cardinals get enough healthy food, fill several feeders with their favorites -- sunflower and safflower seeds-- and plant berry-bearing bushes.

Red and Rowdy

It's possible that the reason so many bare-headed cardinals are seen is that cardinals are so easy to spot in the first place. Their bright red plumage gets instant notice, and their crests identify them as cardinals. Their faces bear black patches of feathers around the eyes and bill, and their color lasts all year. As if all that color weren't enough to get notice, they sing happily and loudly all day, all year round. So while other birds are losing head feathers, too, it's much more noticeable on the strikingly colorful cardinal.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Since cardinals are known as the red birds -- they're sometimes even called "redbirds" -- people tend to think all red birds are cardinals. So when they see a red bird without a crest, they assume the cardinal has lost its crest when, instead, it may be a different bird entirely. The scarlet tanager, for example, is a bright red bird that never has a crest. It can be distinguished from a cardinal because it lacks black markings on its face, and its beak is longer and grayish in color. Juvenile cardinals often have threadbare crests because theirs are just starting to grow in.