Bird Watcher's General Store

Molting Cowbird is Mystery Bird

Dear Bird Folks,

I spoke to you last week about a bird in my yard that was half brown and half black. You said it sounded like a molting cowbird, but I disagreed. So you told me to take a photo of the mystery bird, which I did and here it is (see attached). Do you still think itís a cowbird?

Ė Jack, Eastham, MA

Not anymore, Jack,

When you first described your strange bird I thought it was a molting male cowbird, but after seeing your photo Iíve changed my mind. Now Iím positive that itís a molting male cowbird. There are a lot of weird birds seen this time of year and trying to identify them from a verbal description isnít always a simple thing to do. But the photo you sent me made identification easy. After all, the camera never lies. (Although that last statement isnít true of my new camera. It has taken some photos of me that make me look old. I must have it on a wrong setting. Yeah, thatís it.)

Just about every day someone tells me about a new bird they saw thatís ďnot in the bird book.Ē More often than not, I can open the same book and find the bird in question that just a few minutes ago ďwasnítĒ in there. But this time of year that phrase can actually be true. In late summer our yards play host to an assortment of goofy baby birds. As these new birds transition to adulthood, they often look like a cross between their parents and avian aliens. For example, look out at your feeder right now and you are likely to see a cardinal that has a dark bill, instead of the classic red bill. Why? For the first few weeks of their lives Northern Cardinals, of either sex, are rather bland looking and their signature bill has yet to turn bright red. And while young cardinals look a little silly right now, their parents are about to look a whole lot worse. Iíll get to that in a minute.

One of my favorite late summer phone calls is about ďhornedĒ House Finches. Occasionally, when a young finch molts into its new plumage, not all of its head feathers fall out evenly. Sometimes a few tufts of feathers stick up out of its head, making the bird look like itís half-finch and half-Satan, causing some nervous folks to fill their birdbaths with holy water.

Even large birds, such as young hawks, can leave people scratching their heads. Recently, several people have sent me photos of ďoddĒ hawks. Every single photo I received was of a Red-tailed Hawk. Yet some of the people didnít believe my diagnosis because none of the birds had ďred tails.Ē Like the white heads on Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks arenít born with the tail coloring that defines them. For the first year or so of their lives, red-tails donít have red tails, and Iím not sure why. Itís most likely a way for the birds to signal their maturity. But they could also delay growing in their colorful tails just to confuse new birders. Red-tailed Hawks are trickier than most people think.

The bird in your photo, Jack, is also going through a transitional process. Young male cowbirds are covered in light brown feathers when they first leave the nest, although they donít stay that way for very long. But unlike humans, who can change their outfits in a matter of seconds (well, most humansÖmy wife can stretch out the clothes changing process for at least an hour and a half), young cowbirds need many weeks for their black adult feathers to grow in. During this process the young birds donít look like adults or babies, but are a strange combination of the two. These are the birds that have been giving you fits. Your mysterious bird is just a young cowbird that is going through a difficult stage, like all teenagers do.

So far we have only talked about the molting oddities of young birds, but things donít always go smoothly for adults either. The end of the summer is the notorious ďbald birdĒ season. After the adult birds have finally finished cranking out a family or two, itís time for them to take care of their own needs. One of these is to replace their worn feathers. Most songbirds go through a complete molt at the end of their annual breeding cycle. Because loss of feathers compromises their flying ability, many birds remain quiet during this period (also because they donít want their friends to make fun of them). This molting period can be particularly tough on cardinals (and sometimes Blue Jays). Instead of a gradual loss of head feathers, some unlucky cardinals lose them all at once. And let me tell you, there is not an uglier bird in the world than a bald cardinal. With its feathers missing, the cardinalís head is tiny and black, with exposed, oddly shaped ear holes that look like theyíve been eaten out by termites. Even vultures are grossed out by these birds. Once in a while you may even see a cardinal that is completely bald, except for a single red feather sticking out of the middle of its head (as if itís doing a bad impression of a Native American). A lot of people freak out when they see cardinals in this condition, but donít worry; soon their feathers will grow back and theyíll look like handsome cardinals once more. (So make fun of them while you can.)

This is a tricky time of year to ID birds, Jack. Iím glad you were able to provide photographic evidence of your mystery cowbirds. Pictures really help in situations such as this. Iíd like to write more on this subject, but I have to fix my new camera. If it doesnít start taking better pictures of me soon, itís headed for the landfillÖ along with the last five cameras Iíve bought.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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