Cardinals are well-known songbirds in the eastern United States. Many birdwatchers become very familiar with cardinals because they are one of the species that frequents backyard bird feeders. Avid birdwatchers may notice, then, when their cardinals are looking a bit shabby. They may have patchy color, scruffy looking feathers or be missing patches of feathers altogether. In this article we will look at when cardinals molt to help you better understand the seasonal cycle of changes in their feathers.
- Northern cardinals molt once yearly around the autumn season.
- The late summer and early fall is the best time for molting because this is when food like seeds and berries are most abundant, and nesting duties are complete.
- Cardinals generally look patchy until the end of fall or the beginning of winter, when the full extent of their feathers has molted through.
What Is Molting?
Molting is when a bird sheds old feathers and replaces them with new feathers. Over time, feathers become damaged and worn down. Replacing old feathers before they become too worn out will ensure the bird can maintain efficient flight and proper temperature regulation.
Some species also use the molting cycle as an opportunity to change their plumage. Before the breeding season, they will molt into more colorful plumage to help attract a mate, then molt into more drab colors for the non-breeding season.
It takes several weeks, depending on the bird, to go through the whole process and it requires a lot of energy. Sometimes a bird will molt a large area of feathers all at once. However, most of the time molting occurs in small sections and doesn’t show large bald patches. Protein consumption is important during the process since feathers are made primarily of keratins.
When do cardinals molt?
Northern cardinals molt at the end of the summer through fall. Occasionally the changes can be quite dramatic. A small percentage of cardinals will molt all the feathers on their head at the same time, leaving them looking like little bald vultures. While this looks quite alarming it is no cause for worry.
The majority of cardinals don’t dump large patches of feathers all at once though. Typically a molt occurs in stages. They will lose feathers more slowly at random spots around the body rather than lose large quantities of feathers all at once. This ensures they can still fly properly and not make themselves too vulnerable to threats or weather conditions.
What does a molting cardinal look like?
Outside of the few cardinals that will loose all their head feathers, most usually they don’t show dramatic changes. They tend to look at bit shabby and can have small bald spots, unkempt looking feathers, and patchy color.
Molting cardinals are often described with words like “ratty”, “patchy” or “scruffy”. Their normally smoothed down feathers may stick out at odd angles. On males you may notice patches of gray feathers in with the red.
How many times per year do cardinals molt?
Cardinals molt once per year. The molting process takes between two and three months. Males and females molt simultaneously; both transition from old and raggedy feathers to fresh, new feathers during the same season.
Molting starts late summer/early autumn because this is one of the safest times to molt. In the fall, nuts, berries and insects are all plentiful. Temperatures are relatively mild, and there is still enough foliage around to offer protection if needed. Also, the nesting season is over, so no further energy needs to be put towards egg laying, incubation or raising young.
Juvenile cardinals molt during the fall too. For their first few months of life both sexes are a dull mix of grays and browns with some red hues and a dark beak. During their first fall, they will molt into their adult plumage and their dusky beak will turn orange.
Do cardinals migrate for the winter?
No, cardinals do not migrate and are likely to remain in the same area throughout their life. Good news for backyard feeders, you can enjoy cardinals all year long!
In fact, cardinals are one of the brightest spots in a winter landscape. As winter begins, cardinals have finished molting, and their feathers are as bright and fresh as they will be all year. Females have beautiful warm hues, but males really steal the show with their bright red feathers against winter snow.
Winter is a great time to attract birds, including cardinals, to your feeder because there are fewer food sources available in the wild. In winter, wild songbirds are more likely to rely on food sources provided by humans because they’re easier to find than rooting around in slush or snow.
Besides hanging up bird feeders, you can attract cardinals by planting native plants that produce berries. Berries are where the cardinal gets the carotenoid pigment needed to keep them nice and red. It’s especially important to plant native species since they meet cardinals’ nutritional needs better than plant species from other parts of the world.
Cardinals will return to the same areas every year during the breeding season. While they don’t reuse nests, they will nest in places nearby to previously used nesting sites.
Why are female cardinals not red?
Female cardinals are not red because the red feather color is a trait males use to attract females. Many bird species use this strategy during spring courtship, and it is often the males that are the colorful ones. The more red and brilliant the male, the more likely a female will choose him as her mate.
The red color is not innate in females or males, however. Males become redder based on the seeds and berries they eat. The specific compounds that cause red pigmentation are called carotenoids, and they can be found in brightly colored berries.
The types of plants northern cardinals get pigmentation from include honeysuckle berries, dogwood berries, and winterberries. Females are more likely to pick and mate with males with redder feathers since it usually indicates that they have better nutritional stores. Healthier birds make better fathers and sire stronger young.
How many times will a cardinal molt in its lifetime?
Cardinals molt once per year, so on average, a cardinal will molt once for each year of its life. This generally works out to between 3 and 5 times for wild cardinals, and up to 15 times for captive-kept birds.
Wild northern cardinals have shorter lifespans than captive-kept cardinals because they face hundreds of threats in the wild. Predators like owls, raccoons, foxes, and cats can attack healthy birds or prey on weakened birds, especially in the winter. Nestlings are vulnerable to snakes and carnivorous birds like crows or raptors.
In captivity, cardinals are less likely to be killed by a predator. Age and nutrition are bigger risk factors for their health and well-being.
Northern cardinals molt once per year during the end of the summer and the beginning of the fall. The exact date depends on what region of North America they live in. While they may appear a bit shaggier than usual, no dramatic color change happens during their molt as they keep their same colors year-round.
While males have red feathers and females have brown-dominated feathers, cardinals’ coloration patterns are stable throughout the year. Because of this, it’s easier to tell when they are molting because their usually solid-colored feathers appear patchy and ragged.
- “Are cardinals redder in winter?” Staff Writers & Marc Devokaitis, Cornell Lab: All About Birds, December 2021, allaboutbirds.com
- “Why are male birds more colorful than female birds?” Robert Heinsohn, Scientific American, September 12, 2005, scientificamerican.com