Every summer about this time I get questions about some new birds that show up at area feeders. They have been described as a cross between a northern cardinal and a turkey, with the normal plumage of male or female cardinals but a completely naked head. It’s not a bad description, but that cross doesn’t exist.
Cardinals, and to a lesser degree common grackles and blue jays, tend to lose their head feathers in mid-summer. It is thought the condition is just a premature molting of those feathers. The birds lose the plumage before the replacements are ready to come in.
The birds don’t seem to be suffering from any malady, and the feathers apparently eventually come in, leaving the cardinals none the worse. I imagine it can make the birds cooler during the summertime heat.
Speaking of blue jays, I have gotten many inquiries over the past couple of years about the scarcity of them in this area. I don’t think they are really rare, but they do seem to be more wary and secretive in the Southeast than in other parts of the country.
Perhaps there is more abundant food here so they do not have to patronize feeders as much. Our area willow oaks produce so many small acorns that I suspect the jays utilize this food source to its fullest. I usually only see them at my feeders after heavy snows.
Most nesting of our local species is winding down or completely over now. One species is just getting started or is just beginning to feed new chicks, however. American goldfinches are very late nesters, only now getting into the full swing of raising their families.
They often build in conspicuous locations but are rarely detected. I see their old nests in the winter in mid-sized trees in street medians and parking-lot berms. This species is tied to thistle and milkweed plants for food and nesting material so the timing to delay reproduction may coincide with seed production from those plants.
Goldfinches are strict vegetarians, so they need to nest when seed production is at its peak.
Taylor Piephoff is a local naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.
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