Thom Smith | Nature Watch: Why do some cardinals appear bald?


Q Hello, I'm an avid backyard bird feeder/watcher at my home here in Becket. I have only been actively watching and recording my little friends for two full years. (And 17 identifiable species later) Before then, they were always just welcomed little delights. This spring brought my first mating pair of cardinals! They are such a treat and just yesterday I got to see their baby female at our feeders. Majestic! Anyway, the reason I am writing is because my male has been "losing" his crown feathers. My boyfriend noticed there was something wrong with what seemed like his face about two weeks ago. And today, he looks terrible. He looked as if there was scarring around his eyes at first, but this has now progressed into what seems as though he is balding. I did my share of Google research on this, only to be left with the options of feather mites or fungal infection. This is disheartening knowing there is a pair with a baby sharing a nest. So, I'm writing you with a couple of questions. One, do you have any idea what this might be? Two, should I be concerned for all the other species that visit our feeders? And lastly, is there anything we can do for this poor fella?

Candice, Becket

A It could be either a bad molt or if the head is featherless it could be parasites such as mites. I have heard of blue jays also being crestless in addition to cardinals. While this looks pathetic, the birds usually regrow the feathers. I cannot say for sure which it is, or if something totally different, and do not know of anything that can be done, especially by someone without a wildlife rehabilitation license.

Q When is the best time of year to replant bushes and trees?


A My Natural Landscape neighbor, Garden Journal's writer Ron Kujawski is the expert to ask. You have time to ask him, as my suggestion is early fall (September or October) or spring. Either time, keep the plantings well-watered. In the fall, just after leaves have begun leaf drop or become dormant offers roots a time to grow without the plant needing to feed the leaves. I am sure there is more to it, but I have had success planting around that time.


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Here is an interesting update:

Hi Thom Smith, I am writing to describe two instances of city pigeons disappearing. I have family in Chile and went there recently, February though March. A friend who lives in a small town on the Chilean coast had asked via email how to install her wooden owl to percent pigeons from roosting on her roof. When eventually I arrived, she told me she had been waiting for me so I could help with the problem. However, she also said they had suddenly all disappeared. The town's name is Las Cruces, it is near Santiago. I had left NY (Hastings) mid-March. Before leaving, I forgot to place my life-size, plastic, realistic raven on the balcony to scare them off. To my surprise on my return the balcony was pristine. I have not, up to now, seen more than two city pigeons at a time. There used to be at least 30 to 40. I enjoyed their swarms close to my windows.

CJ, Independent consultant on Western Sahara


Emily Stolarski of Mass Wildlife passed on my question to Peter Hazelton, chief of Conservation Science for MassWildlife's Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program; his response follows:

"MassWildlife does not track fireflies directly, so we do not have any specific data of our own to share with you. That said, it is unlikely that there is a multi-year trend in the firefly population in the state, but you may be observing an effect of the odd weather this spring and winter on this year's abundance. Insect populations can be extremely variable from year to year, and fluctuations are often caused by local weather conditions, including temperature and rainfall over a two-year cycle. Even though we had a mild winter, spring was off to a late start this year and cooler temperatures may have slowed down early insect development. Our biologists have noticed some other insect species in lower numbers — or just harder to find this spring.

You may find some interest in the Firefly Watch Program organized by our conservation partners at MassAudubon ( They have been collecting data from citizen scientists on this very phenomenon since 2008. In fact, the data collected from this program was used to publish an article in the scientific journal Ecological Entomology this past April. The authors of that paper looked at firefly numbers from 2008-2016 and saw that local numbers were related to spring and winter temperatures, but also found that firefly populations were increasing during the study period."

And, Lisa Provencher, my go-to insect wizard, writes, "The fireflies at the plant (Pittsfield's Wastewater Treatment Plant) are amazing this year! Especially after a good rain. The entire back field was blinking over the weekend. And the field is full of painted lady butterfly caterpillars. The birds are eating them, but there are still hundreds left. I'm raising some at home right now. Churchill Street at night is a good spot to see them too."


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