Since August, I’ve had a sizable flock - or maybe flocks - of Blue Jays that make several noisy forays against my bird feeders every day. Among those jays was one whose head was bald. It had no sassy crest, no white patch on its eye, no dark line through the eye, no black necklace - no feathers. It was bald.
Off and on during August, a cardinal would show who was also deficient in head feathers. His red crest looked like he had received a Marine Corps buzz cut. He wasn’t quite bald, but he wasn’t far from it.
What causes baldness? As a human, I know that my severely thinned topknot cannot be blamed on my father, in spite of his baldness, because human baldness comes from the mother’s side. It was my maternal grandfather’s shiny dome that causes me to hide my thinning with an ineffective comb-over.
But what about my poor bald Blue Jay, and the buzz cut cardinal? Why were they bald? I would like to be able to give you a simple answer. But, I cannot. Bird baldness does not succumb to easy answers. There are several possible reasons for baldness in birds, and these reasons are supported mainly by anecdotal evidence, not by scientific study.
|Goldfinch in early April molting to summer plumage|
Mites - An infestation of parasitic mites on the head could be the cause. Feathers require extensive maintenance, known as preening. But the head cannot be reached by the beak, and the mites on the head may result in the loss of head feathers. Or the birds may be scratching their heads with their feet, ridding themselves of head feathers while trying to rid themselves of the itching insects.
Nutrition - I found several anecdotal accounts in support of poor nutrition as a cause of bird baldness. From a Los Angeles observer, there is this account of a Western Scrub Jay: “I called him Scruffy because, well, that was what he was - almost totally bald on his head and neck and totally bedraggled feathers elsewhere. He was also rather listless and ‘depressed’ for a scrub jay, sitting huddled on a branch for long periods of time. He looked and acted like that for the first several months I knew him (I met him in about July or August), until I finally stopped at a pet store one day and got the best, most complete avian supplement I could find, then got some mealworms from a fishing tackle shop. Each day I gave him several mealworms to which I had added a drop of the supplement. Within a week or two he started to make a dramatic improvement and after about a month had become a beautifully sleek and energetic scrub jay. I continued to offer him mealworms and raw pinon nuts, all of which he eagerly accepted. He went on to acquire a mate the next spring and successfully nested twice without ever again displaying any feather problem.”
Bird baldness is most often reported in Blue Jays and Northern Cardinals, but I have found no discussion as to why baldness would be species specific.
The conclusion is that bird baldness may be caused by any of the factors I have mentioned, a combination of those factors, or something else altogether.
In humans, there is ambivalence toward baldness. One bald friend insists that God made a few perfect heads and gave hair to all the rest. His opinion is not shared by the hair transplant and toupee industry. Samson’s strength and virility disappeared when Delilah shaved off his long, thick locks of hair. On the other hand, a female country singer carols her delight at the sexiness of bald-headed men. Humans can’t decide.
Toward bald birds, there is more unanimity. I did not find a single report of bald birds which toted their beauty. The most positive thing I found about bald birds is “Lizard-Head,” followed by the similarities between birds and dinosaurs which can be observed when a bird’s head is not veiled under feathers.
In human terms, bald birds are ugly - whether naturally ugly, like vultures, or unnaturally ugly like my bald-headed Blue Jay and buzz-cut cardinal. I am happy to report that my bald Blue Jay is no longer ugly. It is a healthy bird. Its feathers grew in, and it is now indistinguishable from the rest of the noisy flock.