Heads or Tails? The Mystery of the Missing Feathers!

Monday, September 4, 2017
Balding Birds?  It can definitely be a surprise to come upon a bird who appears to be balding.  I mean, after all, normally we see Blue Jays and Northern Cardinals proudly displaying their crown feathers as if they were indeed wearing crowns!
Good thing this Blue Jay is eating Peanuts in the Shell!  He needs all the protein and fat he can get to help those feathers grow in quickly.
All songbirds undergo at least one full molt per year in which every feather is replaced with a new one.  This process usually takes place after the breeding season has ended, and before the weather starts to turn cold.  In addition, some birds such as the American Goldfinch, also undergo partial molts before breeding season, putting on their best dressed attire to attract a mate.

Typically most birds lose their feathers in a staggered pattern that allows them to continue their regular day to day activities without much interruption.  There are some exceptions to this.  Ducks and some other waterfowl, for example, lose all of their flight feathers at one time, leaving them grounded for a couple of weeks to a month until the feathers grow back in.

There appears to be some other exceptions as well. During their annual molt, some Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds have been observed molting all, or most of their head and neck feathers before any new feathers have had time to grow in, while others of the same species undergo staggered feather loss and replacement.  

IMG_8623_More Bald Blue Jays_2
With the way the neck and head feathers are...this molting Blue Jay reminds me of an old balding man. ;)

Why is this so?  Some experts say that these birds lose these head feathers due to mites, while, many others have performed studies that indicate that some birds within the same species just molt differently.  Hence the odd looking bald birds. ;)  What is clear, is that Cardinals, Blue Jays, Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds tend to have the greatest instances of complete head and neck molting than most other species.

IMG_9440_Balding Grackle
Harder to tell that this Grackle is losing his head feathers because of his dark skin and dark feathers...but look closely and you will see the bald patch on his head.

IMG_8318_Bald Red-winged Blackbird
This Red-winged Blackbirds head feathers are starting to grow back in after having been bald for several days
IMG_9483_Bald Blue Jay
Blue Jays are one species of birds known to lose all head and neck feathers at the same time during molting season.
Not to worry, soon these beauties will be wearing their crowns of glory again.
IMG_9520_Molting Blue Jay
This young Blue Jays head feathers are starting to fill in nicely.  You can still see that the feathers are very short, and that not all the neck feathers have grown in.

Some birds lose head feathers due to mites.  The head is a difficult place to preen.  The feathers become damaged by the mites and then fall out, and new ones will grow back in once the mites are gone.

IMG_8078 Balding Black-capped Chickadee
Balding Black-capped Chickadee.  Loss of head feathers could be due to mites.
So what about missing tail feathers?  Sometimes tail feathers are all lost at once due to an irregular molt, mites, illness or predator attack.  Or perhaps its as simple as you are seeing a baby bird.  Tail feathers are typically the last feathers to grow in fully on baby birds, as they are too large to grow while the babies are still in the nest.
IMG_0200_Molting Song Sparrow
Molting Song Sparrow with no Tail Feathers.

IMG_9941_Song Sparrow with no tail
Song Sparrow with no Tail Feathers

IMG_9277_Red-winged Blackbird no Tail Feathers
Red-Winged Blackbird missing his Tail Feathers
So heads or tails?  Which feathers do you think are funnier to see missing on a bird?

I think they both look hilarious!



  1. Great article Leanne! Thanks for sharing your knowledge! Beautiful photography!

  2. Curious as to why different species within my garden are without tail feathers. If it is mites is there anything I can do?

  3. It is possible that they could have mites. However if this is the case there is very little you can do but let nature take its course. Tail feathers will re-grow. Some species will "dust bath" in loose soil to dislodge mites. You may consider adding a section of your yard for this purpose with some loose sandy soil but not all birds will use it. ~Kristen