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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 it’s a cowbird?

– 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 I’ve changed my mind. Now I’m positive that it’s 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 isn’t 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 isn’t 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, that’s it.)

Just about every day someone tells me about a new bird they saw that’s “not in the bird book.” More often than not, I can open the same book and find the bird in question that just a few minutes ago “wasn’t” 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. I’ll get to that in a minute.

One of my favorite late summer phone calls is about “horned” 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 it’s 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 “odd” hawks. Every single photo I received was of a Red-tailed Hawk. Yet some of the people didn’t believe my diagnosis because none of the birds had “red tails.” Like the white heads on Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks aren’t born with the tail coloring that defines them. For the first year or so of their lives, red-tails don’t have red tails, and I’m not sure why. It’s 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 don’t stay that way for very long. But unlike humans, who can change their outfits in a matter of seconds (well, most humans…my 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 don’t 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 don’t always go smoothly for adults either. The end of the summer is the notorious “bald bird” season. After the adult birds have finally finished cranking out a family or two, it’s 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 don’t 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 cardinal’s head is tiny and black, with exposed, oddly shaped ear holes that look like they’ve 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 it’s doing a bad impression of a Native American). A lot of people freak out when they see cardinals in this condition, but don’t worry; soon their feathers will grow back and they’ll 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. I’m glad you were able to provide photographic evidence of your mystery cowbirds. Pictures really help in situations such as this. I’d like to write more on this subject, but I have to fix my new camera. If it doesn’t start taking better pictures of me soon, it’s headed for the landfill… along with the last five cameras I’ve bought.