I also wanted to see how the molting Northern cardinal family looked, Mom with her heavily molting head, and Dad, last seen with a disarray of crest feathers and gray down showing here and there.
Above you see the male on August 11th, with many of his crest feathers already missing. And below you can see how he appeared yesterday, on August 28th. In a little over two weeks he had molted all his crest feathers, many head and facial feathers and had produced feather sheaths to protect newly growing feathers. The tiny feathers poking up on his crown in the image below are the brand new ones growing out beyond the sheath. And what looks like gray whiskers are the sheaths for his new black facial feathers.
It's the 'tween time for cardinals and many other birds, the molting season, a time when juveniles are still following parents around begging, but the hectic pace of nesting and fledging season is over. Young can now fly and are learning to forage for themselves.Molting female cardinal with juvenile perched below her.
It's also a time when molting birds need a bounty of food to help nourish them through the energy-demanding task of producing new feathers. And for year-around residents in Tennessee, these new feathers include a thicker layer of down, making ready for the winter months.
Molting, or the shedding and replacing of worn feathers with new ones, occurs in all birds but at different times, with different frequency and rates, all of which perfectly matches the bird's habits, seasonal cycles, available food sources and migration patterns. And despite the look of disarray, molting occurs in an orderly and gradual fashion with most birds retaining their ability to fly while molting. Waterfowl are an exception, rendered temporarily flightless with a complete postbreeding molt due to body aerodynamics.
Northern Cardinal juvenile.
Besides having fun watching this cardinal family interact, I noticed the juveniles were molting, too. So I checked my new book, National Geographic Birding Essentials by Jonathan Alderfer and Jon L. Dunn that I purchased through Wild Birds Unlimited and delved into it a little more.
There is a great deal of variation among species as to how long a juvenile keeps its first plumage.
Molting may occur for some juveniles before leaving the nest! In other species, such as the Bald Eagle, a series of partial molts over a five year period changes the plumage appearance several times before the young eagle reaches breeding age and acquires the distinctive white head and tail of the mature adult.For these two juvenile cardinals trying to share a perch, the wait will not be so long. In only a few months they will have acquired the distinctive orange beak and brighter adult plumage that we all enjoy in our backyard cardinals.