Beauty is only skin deep…or in some cases, feather deep. At least if you’re a male cardinal caught in the embarrassing throes of an unusual molt.
The goofy-looking redbird, which could almost have been mistaken for a scarlet-plumed pigmy vulture, appeared at the feeder outside my study window yesterday morning. The light was low, but I didn’t figure I had time to change settings on the camera or grab a tripod—so I snapped a quick shot and hoped for the best. The result isn’t the best of photos, but it’s certainly sufficient to reveal the usually handsome and cocky cardinal at his decidedly unflattering worst.
I actually felt rather bad about making his portrait. Like I’d become a member of the paparazzi who lurks outside the doors of fancy hotels or gated mansions in the Hollywood Hills, shooting pictures for the tabloids of movie stars when they’re overweight, without makeup—or in the case of more than a few men—lack the masculine mental-reenforcing enhancement of a toupee.
Had I joined the ornithological version of the gutter press?
This cardinal definitely got caught away from the thicket without his hairpiece…er-r-r, featherpiece. And since the single most defining feature of a cardinal—male or female—is their crest, I can see where such a loss might lead to temporary insecurity issues. The bird did seem extra jumpy, looking nervously around before snatching a sunflower seed; and maybe, too, a little angry, put upon, as if life had treated this poor old redbird unfairly.
Well, maybe he had a point.
According to June Osborn, in her book The CardniaI, published by the University of Texas press, such a complete loss of feathers over a single area is not the norm. Usually cardinals molt via a gradual process—a few feathers from here, others from there, leaving enough plumage for protection and the power of flight.
Of course a bald pate wasn’t going to prevent this fellow from flying…but such a thorough, single-area loss was not how the change to new feathers is typically made. For a proud bird, it had to be awkward if not humiliating. I had to sympathize.
The good part is that the loss will be temporary; give it another week or two and that red-coated fellow can strut his stuff in brand new attire.