Hart Beat by Hart Rufe

First published September 1, 2014 ... Contact Hart at hartrufe@gmail.com

Looks like this Northern Cardinal didn't need a crest to start a family

Bald as a .... bird?

Recently I ran into an old friend whom I had not seen for several years. He was/is a very handsome man who always had a magnificent mane, arguably his most outstanding physical feature. On this occasion, however, be was absolutely hairless, bald as the proverbial cue-ball. How do you greet a person whose appearance has changed so drastically? Flabbergasted: “Oh my God, what happened to your hair?” Incredulous, as to a five year old who has just taken a scissors to his head: “Why did you ever do that?” Sympathetic, thinking cancer: “You poor man, are you all right?” Or perhaps a weak attempt at Humor: “Did they catch the Indians that did that to you?” I went with Simple Statement: “I hardly recognized you.”

One word answer: “Alopecia!” as though that explained everything. After our reunion I went to my trusty encyclopedia in my pocket and found “alopecia totalis,” an autoimmune disorder that causes the sufferer to lose all the hair on his head. Sometimes the hair completely returns, more often it does not. Sympathy for my friend would definitely have been appropriate, but probably unwelcome. See: www.hairlosstalk.com/alopecia/alopecia-totalis.php.

Sympathy, if not pity, was definitely the reaction we felt for a male Northern Cardinal that showed up under our feeders with the same alopecia totalis condition. Accustomed to cardinals with crowning crests (or is it “pileated” - stlucieaudubon.org/hartBeat/hb140701pileated.html), this poor, pathetic fellow would seem to be at a distinct disadvantage in the dating/mating scene. Nevertheless, he seems to have been successful, for three weeks later he was, indeed, feeding young. (right)

We now know that in humans an autoimmune disorder causes the condition, but what causes it in birds? While the balding condition in birds is apparently more common than thought, (although this was my first experience with such a sight in many decades of avid birding,) it is not well studied, nor do ornithologists completely agree on the cause. All do agree that it is not caused by the bird being hen-pecked, for such abuse would not cause the complete loss of feathering observed. Four possible or probable explanations are suggested:

  1. Most likely, the bird is going through an irregular feather molt, losing all the head feathers at one time rather than incrementally as might be normal and expected;

  2. Second most likely, the bird has a bad case of feather mites, tiny arthropods that feed on feathers. As birds can normally preen away such pests, the head is one area they are unable to reach in their preening process, and hence the mites can gorge themselves until all the feathers are gone, after which they then migrate into feather areas where they are dispatched by the preening host;

  3. But less likely, the bird is suffering from nutritional deficiencies;

  4. Some avian disease or injury trauma, but there does not seem to be any evidence to support this explanation.

All ornithologists agree that the bird will grow a complete new head-dress in a matter of a few weeks, and will have a normal appearance thereafter. Or until the same thing happens again the following year, which apparently does sometimes, happen.

We did not see our bald-headed cardinal very often, and if he is still in our area and has now grown a new bright red crest, we would be hard-pressed to pick him out from the various cardinals that visit our feeders each day. As for my handsome human friend, I am not likely to see him again for several years, so I will just have to wait to see if he was as fortunate as the birds in growing a new crest. Reminds me of the old riddle: What is it that a man never wants to get, but once he gets it, he never wants to lose it? Sure, you know the answer – a bald head!

For more information on bald birds, see: www.farmanddairy.com/columns/scott-shalaway/solving-the-mystery-of-what-causes-bald-cardinals/15565.html, and www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~insrisg/nature/nw98/baldbirds.html (9/1/14)

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