Male Northern Cardinal (photo by Chuck Tague)

17 August 2009

Our robins and cardinals are looking pretty ragged lately.  The adults are molting.

Their feathers wear out so birds molt to replace them.  Robins and cardinals do it once a year.  Long distance migrants molt twice.  American goldfinches molt their body feathers twice a year but their closest finch relatives don’t.  Who knows why.

Birds replace their feathers in a pattern across their bodies.  Most replace their center two tail feathers, then the two tail feathers next to those and so on until their entire tail has new feathers.  Their wings molt the same one feather at the same time on both wings.  This prevents flight impairment because their wings are still the same on both sides.  Heavy birds, like ducks and geese, molt all at once and are flightless for a short time each year.

I suppose August is as a good time as any to replace their feathers.  April won’t do because they have to look beautiful and sleek during courtship.  Rule out May through July because breeding season is too intense to be hampered by missing feathers.  Winter is too cold which eliminates November through February.  In the other months they’re migrating.  So August it is.

I’ll be glad when they look normal again.

(photo of a wet northern cardinal by Chuck Tague)

p.s. Have your goldfinches started to turn dull yellow again? Mine have.

14 thoughts on “Molting

  1. My birdfeeders were covered with bright yellow goldfinches the past few days. I guess I’ll savor the view while it lasts….

  2. My finches are sad & grey almost. The cardinals are all raggedy. Feel sorry for them but I told them I loved them anyway. One cardinal looked like he got a mohawk haircut. faith Cornell

  3. I planted a bunch of sunflowers and have quite a bit of goldfinch activity going on around them. They love the seeds. I have not noticed any molting yet.

  4. Hi Kate,

    The male cardinal who nests in my tree out back was at my feeder out front the other day when I saw him. My first thought was “who is that cardinal?” and then I realized he is molting.

    I have 2 finch feeders because I had so many goldfinches at the end of last year. The females were scarce for the last few weeks and have just started coming around again. So…I’m waiting to see their babies. They and the males still have their usual summer color.

  5. In my yard 5 mi south of the Golden Triangle, the goldfinches are still golden.
    Cardinals are a puzzlement. I have one bald one – has been like that for many weeks. But I also have a bunch that have looked “sooty” all summer – very gray females, males that look like they’ve been dipped in a gray wash over the red. I am trying to get decent pictures.

    1. I know this is years after your posting but it is December here 2017 and I also have a grey washed male cardinal. I think it’s too uniform to be a molt, so I was wondering what is going on. Reply is not essential—thought you may have learned more in the interim. Thanks.

  6. Kate – I found your blog today. It’s wonderful. And the name is similar to mine, although I don’t limit myself to birds.
    I found you while searching for bird behavior during heat waves. Our temps have for the last several weeks been unbearably hot: 90’s (Fahrenheit) and up. During this time our cardinals have all but disappeared. During the spring season Mr & Mrs Cardinal were quite visible, I show them on my blog. But now…not to be seen. The other birds activity has diminished also, but not to the extent of the Cardinals. I finally decided the weather might be the reason and was trying to find backup data saying such. Now, after reading this post about molting, that might be part of the problem too. Do you think the HOT weather has contributed to their hiding?
    Thanks and keep up the good work!
    Sharon (Looking Out My Window)

  7. Sharon, yes the hot weather makes them hide in whatever shade they can find, just like we do. If you put out a bird bath you will see LOTS of birds. When it’s really hot they need to drink more and they like to bathe to cool off. Good luck in the heat!

  8. I have a Cardinal that has a bald head and it is March 20th and it has been that way for several weeks? And I mean totally bald- in the Pocono’s we still have a foot of snow- must be chilly at least for him ? Or is this possibly something else- parasite?

    1. Clara, there’s really nothing to be done for an otherwise healthy wild bird…. The baldness might not be mites.

  9. Hi! I know nothing about birds but I’m worried about what looked like a molting Robin. He was tucked between two spindles in the railing on the stairs to my deck at about 11pm. He let my husband and I walk by (we had to get within 6 inches or so) without moving. He seemed really sad and I thought he might be sick or injured. He stayed without moving until I finally left him there. This morning, he’s gone. Anything to worry about? (I did take a photo!)

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