Can a Cardinal Fly Without Tail Feathers?

Cardinals are a birder favorite, but they don't always look neat and pretty. Here are some reasons you might find a cardinal feather.

Northern cardinals perch atop many “favorite bird” lists. It’s not difficult to understand why; their red coloring transforms them into fluttering roses on a canvas of backyard greens and browns. Sometimes, though, that eye-catching plumage isn’t without flaw. Here are a few reasons you might find a redbird with a missing cardinal feather (or a few!), according to our experts. Plus, can a bird fly without tail feathers?

If you see a cardinal, here’s what it means.

Missing Cardinal Tail Feathers

14 Richardcarlson Bbdj22, cardinal featherCourtesy Richard Carlson
Cardinal with missing tail feathers

A male cardinal without tail feathers visited our feeder. What happened to it? —Birds & Blooms reader Richard Carlson

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman: When a songbird loses all its tail feathers at once, it’s usually the result of an accident. Maybe this cardinal had a near miss with a predator, or perhaps its tail got caught in something and the bird had to pull free. The cardinal should be fine and the tail feathers will grow back. Songbirds replace all their feathers at least once per year anyway, with new feathers growing in as old ones drop out in a process called molt. During a normal molt, only a couple of feathers are replaced at a time, so the tail may look ragged but it’s never completely missing.

Curious about more unique looking birds, other than a strange missing cardinal feather? Check out these amazing yellow cardinals and white cardinals!

Missing Cardinal Head Feather

14 Janineneiswender Bbxjuly17Courtesy Janine Neiswender
Bald looking cardinal

Did this northern cardinal have a run-in with a predator or did disease cause his feathers to fall out? — Birds & Blooms reader Janine Neiswender

Kenn and Kimberly: It’s fairly common to see cardinals looking like this in late summer or early fall when they go through the process of molt (growing a fresh set of feathers). Usually the feathers are replaced just a few at a time, but cardinals sometimes drop most of their head feathers at once. If the bird stays bareheaded for more than a couple of weeks, or if you see this at a completely different time of year, the cardinal might have a skin disease or an infestation of feather mites on its head.

Learn interesting cardinal bird facts you should know.

14 Cheriesouhrada Bbxjul21Courtesy Cherie Souhrada
Cardinals may look strange while molting.

What is this unusual bird? — Birds & Blooms reader Cherie Souhrada

Kenn and Kimberly: Believe it or not, your mystery bird with the odd hairdo is an adult male cardinal. The bald look is sometimes caused by environmental factors like nutritional deficiencies or feather mites. But it’s most commonly the result of molting. To maintain their feathers for flight and keep them water resistant and insulating, birds regularly replace their plumage with new feathers in the process called molt. In some birds, particularly blue jays, cardinals and a few blackbirds, the head molt can happen all at once. This results in very strange-looking birds, like the peculiar visitor in your photo.

Next, find out what foods cardinals eat and how to attract them.

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Emily Hannemann
Emily Hannemann is an associate digital editor for Birds & Blooms. She has a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in magazine writing from the University of Missouri - Columbia. When she’s not writing and editing, you’ll find her swimming, running, or hiking. She knows blue jays are controversial, but she loves them anyway.