Getting Our Feathers Ruffled

Mysterious Bird Disease Hits Western Pennsylvania

We watched with apprehension, not wanting to take down our feeders, but knowing we should.  The birds had brought me so much entertainment during the Covid lockdown that I’d been accused of becoming a “crazy bird lady.”  I’d taken the Cornell E-bird course, bought the field guide to the birds of Pennsylvania, and acquired a new pair of binoculars to keep at my writing desk, from where I can gaze out the window at said feeders.  My kids (who did the accusing) bought me a huge “Birds of North America: The Complete Collection” poster for Mother’s Day, which I’ve since had framed and mounted on my studio wall.  (I’m still trying to figure out whether this gift was “ironic.”)

Now, supposedly, the threat has passed.  But does a threat really pass?  (Wasn’t Covid supposed to be over?)  We tentatively filled our feeders and watched out for signs of illness.  Our birds happily flocked back.  Pretty house finches with a soft diffusion of scarlet on their heads and breasts, screeching blue jays with their shrill “keep out of my way” calls, gentle cooing mourning doves, sweet brown song sparrows, handsome hairy woodpeckers with their distinct black and white plumage…but where were my cardinals?  Where was Lucille, my spunky female, with her muted red-brown feathers and expression of indignance, or was it haughtiness?  And Fred, the large red dynamo who ruled the feeder, squawking away even the most stubborn blue jay.   Listening to him sing, my son called him the “Spirit Bird” (although his spirit, spirit song sounded more like skireet skireet to me.)

Yesterday, I looked out my window to the faded wooden fence behind the feeder.  Was that Fred sitting on the top?  Under his bright red feathers were stripes of grey – the feathers on his crest stuck out like an unruly yucca plant.  He looked anything like the “Spirit Bird” who perched, looking so regal and formidable, on a high tree branch.  Now his coat looked like an old red velvet slipper where patches of velvet have worn off and only the grey fabric of the slipper remains underneath.  I panicked.  Did Fred have the mysterious bird disease?  I felt a pang of guilt for restocking the feeder.  I picked up my binoculars to get a closer look at him.  His black eyes were shiny and bright as he stood sentinel from the fence post.  I watched him take off from his perch and soar through the air with ease.  Somewhat relieved, I turned to the internet to find out what the malady might be.  

Fred was molting!  Apparently, this is something that cardinals do at the end of the summer.  The reason we don’t see it often is that some cardinals are actually embarrassed by their loss of feathers and prefer to hide.  I thought about all of us who decided to embrace our gray hair during Covid, when we, too, could hide, until our hair grew out. I though about my own experience – my hair had started to fall out after I thought I’d recovered from Covid.  I’d contracted the disease a week before I was finally scheduled to get the vaccine, and I spent five days fighting it in the hospital.  The stress resulted in what was termed a “hair shedding event,” with my hair coming out in clumps like Barkley’s, my husky mix, when he sluffs his thick undercoat and tufts of grey fur clog our knock-off Roomba. Poor Fred, I thought.  At least he wasn’t bald, like some of the cardinals I saw in the photos, with giant beaks and big beady eyes peering from tiny smooth grey heads.  They reminded me of the first time I saw a hairless cat, a grey hide with wrinkles and bulging eyes in a furless face.

 Fred reappeared in my sight line, and flew over to the bird feeder, where a glossy black starling perched on the other side.  A loud argument ensued, with each of the starling’s grating shrieks answered by Fred’s angry retort. I can only imagine the insults the starling was throwing at Fred.  But our Spirit Bird got the last word, the starling flew off, and Fred ate his dinner in peace.

My hair has stopped falling out and is coming back healthier than before.  According to the articles I read, our spirit bird will soon be decked out once again in his vibrant red coat. Keep the faith, Fred – you will be sporting that magnificent crest soon.  And tell Lucille it’s okay to come out of hiding.  I miss her.

3 thoughts on “Getting Our Feathers Ruffled

  1. You continue to be a role model and inspiration for me even after I’ve been out of your classroom for a few years. Cardinals are my favorite birds and I truly believe they may be our lost loved ones sending us a message. I sure saw a lot of them when my dad had an unexpected massive heart attack. I got my own bird feeder shortly after. You’ll always be my favorite teacher. I’m glad that you’re still here and creating your beautiful art! Thank you for everything.


  2. You continue to be a inspiration and role model for me even after I’ve been out of your classroom for so long. Cardinals are my favorite birds and I truly believe that they are sent from our lost loved ones. I saw quite a few of them when my dad had an unexpected massive heart attack. They gave me a lot of comfort and now I have my own bird feeder to attract my favorite birds. I’m glad that you’re still around to inspire me and create the most beautiful art. Sending you lots of love


    1. Katie, thank you so much for your kind words. I’m glad that my writing reached you, and that the Cardinals bring you comfort. (Although I’m not sure how you’d feel seeing Fred in his current state!)


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