Feeder Friday: Molting Northern Cardinal

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The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) might just be one of the easiest birds to ID in the northeast. The plumage of a Northern Cardinal is a bright-scarlet, or cardinal, red.

Unlike the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) which molts its vibrant summer plumage into a drab winter feather coat, the Northern Cardinal’s plumage color, post-molt, remains the same throughout the year.

Cardinal Molt

Cardinals can raise 2-3 broods per year. The male contributes by feeding the young once they hatch, but does not share the responsibility of incubating a clutch. After the breeding season is over, Northern Cardinals being their post-breeding molt.

Mourning Dove with Northern Cardinal. Image Credit: Animal Perspectives.

Northern Cardinal With a Few Crest Feathers Left. Image Credit: Animal Perspectives.

Cardinals will drop feathers — molt — so that new ones can grow in. The post-breeding season molt offers a unique opportunity to see parts of a Cardinal’s anatomy which is usually hidden underneath its feathers.

For example, without the Cardinal’s signature crest (the tuft of feathers on the top of its head, see above photo), its shape is revealed, and it looks quite different!

Northern Cardinal. Image Credit: Animal Perspectives.

Northern Cardinal. Image Credit: Animal Perspectives.

In the first two images, the ear opening is visible — the indentation below the eye. When a Cardinal is not molting, its ear openings are covered by feathers called auriculars, or ear coverts.

Cardinals are in the same a family as Grosbeaks and Buntings, probably the most visual clue is their beak — they all tend to have large ones. So when a Cardinals molts, the enormity of its beak in relation to its size can truly be appreciated.


Northern Cardinal. Image Credit: Animal Perspectives.

Read more about Northern Cardinals here, and have a listen here.

Stay Tuned for more next week from AnimalPerspectives.Com! Have a great weekend!

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