Monday, August 9, 2010

My Ugly Bald Cardinal

Mites: the answer to the question of July 20's post, "What caused my beautiful father cardinal to go bald?"

According to Dr. Zinn, friend and ornithology consultant, head mites are common among cardinals. They can preen the mites from their body feathers, but not from their heads.

Like many phenomena of nature, this one is sad, true, easy enough to understand---and renders a thing of beauty ugly---REALLY ugly.

Knowledge of the presence of head mites prompts other questions and more online research, though I can't vouch for the answers I found on the blogs of other birders: Are the mites harmful to the longterm health of the cardinal? No. Will the mites die off like insects in winter? Yes. Will the cardinal's head feathers grow back? Yes. Will the eggs of the mites left in abandoned nests survive the winter and begin a new generation next spring? Yes.

The particularly frightening, bald, black-headed, mostly-red patriarch of the cardinal nests in and around my backyard, still frequents the feeder over the deck, as do his comical first-year offspring. His mate and children are all varying shades of tan with reddish tails. One tall skinny daughter with disheveled yellowish feathers hops on the deck looking quite shell-shocked. She eats only the debris on the deck floor beneath the feeder, but her more aggressive brothers, equally comedic, vie for direct time and place at the portals of the feeder. Some of them are splotchier than others as they molt to exchange their brown feathers for red. The adolescent males exercise their crest feathers up and down, strutting and prancing, discovering their male prowess, providing us with great summer theater through the window.

One of them, poor baby, is beginning to show signs of mites---that is, losing feathers about his neck and head. It's the cardinal equivalent of male pattern baldness. dkm

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