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by , Ranger
Greg Dodge is a professional naturalist as well as a writer, videographer and producer of natural history DVDs. His images have been used in various TV productions, museum displays, and corporate videos. Above all, he has a fascination and passion for all things natural.
Stop by and say hello Tuesday thru Saturday in Explore the Wild, Catch the Wind, or on the Dino Trail.

Bald-headed Cardinal

March 18th, 2011

Northern cardinal singing from a cypress next to the boardwalk (2/16/11).

While strolling down the boardwalk into the Wetlands you may have heard the cheery song of a cardinal. If you had stopped to admiral the bright red bird singing from the bare-limbed Bald Cypress on your right, you might have noticed that the bird was balding, or missing feathers from around its eyes and part of its forehead.

A closer look at the cardinal reveals that the feathers around it eyes and crown are missing (2/16/11).

The first two photos of the cardinal were shot in mid February. The baldness has progressed since then.

I usually see this kind of feather loss in cardinals during summer, but I first noticed this bird’s problem in February when it began singing from the trees along the boardwalk.

I don’t know why, but this type of feather loss seems more prevalent in cardinals. It may simply be that other birds stay under cover when they experience feather loss such as this. I occasionally see Blue Jays and other birds with no feathers on their heads, but mostly cardinals.

Cardinals usually molt in summer, as do most song birds, long after the nesting season has begun, so its not a normal molt that’s taking place on this bald-headed bird. Besides, molting birds don’t loose all of their feathers at once, it’s a gradual process where the old feathers are pushed out by the new feathers that are coming in. It’s a systematic process.

Most birds do look rather ragged during the summer molt though. But you don’t see a bunch of naked birds running around devoid of feathers during the summer. And, remember, they can’t fly without feathers so they would literally be running around, not flying around, if they lost all of their feathers at once.

A little more than two weeks later the balding is more pronounced (3/4/11).

So what exactly is causing the feather loss?

The balding on this bird was not caused by hard-living and age, as in my case, but from mites or lice (I’ve had mites and lice before, but not avian mites or lice). I don’t know whether the feather loss is a direct result of the infestation or from the bird literally scratching the feathers off of its head due to the itching caused by the parasites. If you’ve ever had chiggers, you might be able to understand how that could happen.

One month after I first noticed the cardinal's feather deficit (3/15/11).

Why is the feather loss only on the head? Another I don’t know, but I have and idea. The head is just about the only place that the bird can’t reach with its bill to pick off parasites. The bird can certainly scratch its head with its feet though. And as we all know, scratching feels good, but doesn’t get rid of the problem. It usually makes it worse.

I was a bit worried about this bird. Female cardinals choose their mates either by the song the male delivers, its appearance, or a combination of the two. A bright red bird with a nice pointy crest and contrasting black area around its face probably looks pretty attractive to a female cardinal. Our bird lacks those physical characteristics. Obviously, this male cardinal can’t see itself so it doesn’t know what it looks like, but it does keep right on singing, and quiet sweetly I might add.

As I mentioned earlier, this feather loss usually occurs during the summer, long after mates are chosen, nests are built, and young are begging for grub, so you’re stuck with whoever it was that you chose as a mate by the time the feathers fall out (or are scratched out). At that point though, little else matters except for keeping the baby birds fed and protected. They are, both of them, very dedicated parents.

Yesterday, I saw a female in our singing male’s vicinity on more than one occasion, so his singing may be paying off.

I’ll keep an eye on this bird and let you know what happens.

Join the conversation:

  1. We saw this a bunch at the wildlife hosptial and I was told it was a common way for Cardinals to molt into and out of the mating season. So I wouldn’t worry- it’s not the only bald-headed cardinal around :)

    Posted by Courtney
  2. Oooo- I found an interesting article that might explain why it might be common:

    Don’t know if its true but makes sense :)

    Posted by Courtney
  3. Ranger Comment :

    Thanks Courtney. I agree with both Mark and Susan at Hawk Mt. and Mohawk, respectively at the above URL. The birds always seem to recover, and yes, it’s tough to pick off parasites from your head using your bill. A pair of hands, or even a mate to help with the preening would be a good thing to have. That is of course, if the problem is parasites and not a molt that’s specific to individual birds.
    I’ve read other reports where banders have seen this baldness and have never actually found any mites on the bird’s head, but as Liz Day, Indianapolis, IN suggested “…Perhaps the mites left the head after the feathers were all gone and moved to the neck?” Who knows what’s really going on. It may be a combination of molt and parasites as suggested by some. It also seems to occur in some species more than others.
    One thing about the molt, cardinals should already be in their alternate (breeding) plumage by the time the mating season rolls along, the better to attract a mate. But hey, I guess things don’t always happen when they’re supposed to.
    One thing’s for sure, the birds look rather prehistoric, dinosaur prehistoric that is, without feathers!

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  4. Hi –

    I just found a male balding cardinal – but I think it is the same Mr. Cardinal that has been hanging around my house for the last three years.
    He lost his feathers around his eyes and, upon searching, found this post! I live on Waterman Lake in Glocester, RI and was wondering. I”ll keep my eye out for my balding cardinal too.. :)

    Posted by cathleen
  5. Ranger Comment :

    Hey Cathleen.
    It seems to be a common occurrence in cardinals (loosing the feathers on their heads) as well as a few other species.
    Do you have many cardinals around your place? It wasn’t too long ago that a cardinal was a rare sighting in RI.
    Have a good one.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  6. Thanks for this info. I’m in Austin Texas and we have MANY cardinals at our feeders. Today I saw a grown male with his head feathers and crest almost completely gone. Maybe its mites. I was worried that our bluejays were beating up the other birds. I also found a dead little finch a week ago so thought maybe incidents related but I guess just coincidence. We live by preserve wooded area. Keep feeders on the edge, it’s great bird watching!

    Posted by Margaret Jonon Buford
  7. Ranger Comment :

    Thanks for the comments and information.
    I haven’t been to Austin in quite a while, good birding in that part of Texas, but I guess all of Texas has some good birding!
    If I found a dead finch (House Finch?) at my feeder back east here I would suspect Mycoplasmal Conjunctivitis as the cause of death. Has that disease hit the Texas Hill Country?
    Thanks again.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  8. My children and i found your your march 18 post on the bald headed cardinal and we all appreciated his story. Your site was the first to come up when we googled “what causes cardinals to have a bald head” for we have one of these little friends coming to our bird feeder the last couple of weeks. We have seen him a lot and sometimes he is with his lady. But we want you to know a story of how he is a very dedicated parent. Today he brought his two little girls with him and while his lady ate, he fed his two fluffy, shivery daughters. He picked up skattered seeds and fed each one as they opened up their mouths for him. Needless to say we were amazed and thankful to see such tenderness. In our years of having this feeder on our deck we have never witnessed such a scene. Now the second part of the story : another male came along and was very agressive toward our bald male who backed off. Then this same cardinal male started pecking at one of the baby girls and dad took action immediately diving at this arrogant bird and chasing him away.

    We look forward to seeing them again.

    Also we have been blessed with at least one painted bunting couple coming to our feeder. We just discovered the existence of these lovely creatures this week.

    As for you Ranger Dodge, the hairs on your head are all numbered by the Heavenly Father and not one of them falls without him knowing it, and as the Lord Jesus says, not one sparrow falls to the ground without him knowing it, how much more does he care for you!

    Thank you for your post.

    Sincerely from Oak Island, NC

    Posted by Susan
  9. Have had the same pair of Cardinals in our Minnesota yard for 3 years. Both were banded during their first mating. We observe regularly at close range with 40X-100x spotting scope. Both feed daily from our yard feeding station.

    Nov 2010 the male showed feather loss around the right eye and it progressed as in your pictures. By March (thru a lot of very cold weather) he was completely bald to the bottom of his neck. They remained paired all winter. Spring 2011, he defended his territory against newcomers and they nested successfully.

    By May 2011 feather loss has continued slightly down back & further down the chest. He spends his spare time in a brush pile a few feet from our kitchen window where he preens and rests. He baths daily in a bird bath. I have never once seen him attempt to scratch.

    Behaviorally he acts like a normal Cardinal. He survived a long severe winter and a prolonged very wet spring. He often appears completely drenched. Think of the stress from heat loss all winter, exposure to weeks of cold wet skin & UV exposure & sunburn.

    I have to disagree, I do not believe this is a common occurrence. The bird went through a normal molt during the summer of 2010. It was several months after molting that feather loss began. Nor is this bird recovering; rather the condition is worsening. The female shows no signs of abandoning him. If it’s caused by mites or lice, one might think that he’d shed a few on the nestlings when brooding or feeding them. I’ve scoured the surrounding area for signs of other affected cardinals–none. Lastly, why is it that only males are afflicted? Through 60 years of very active bird watching this is the first time I’ve witnessed this.

    Posted by Daniel
  10. Ranger Comment :

    Interesting observations.
    As mentioned in the post, I do think it is a common occurrence but not a normal one, and not related to molt. I don’t know what the cause is but it doesn’t seem to be molt.
    I agree, the heat loss in winter and heat gain in summer must have a negative effect on the birds, but it’s not apparent to me.
    The feather loss doesn’t seem to be a problem with finding a mate, but I don’t know exactly what the birds experience in their quest for mates. There’s probably many things missed by us humans that only the cardinals know about, what they look for in a mate, how many females reject the males before a suitable mate is found….
    There’s a photo of a female with the malady taken by Cathy and Tracey Trumbull on Knoxville, TN: – scroll down to the bottom of the page.
    Great observations, and thanks for the comments.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  11. Thank you for your observations regarding balding birds. This summer was the first time I’ve ever seen balding birds. We have at least 3 balding birds: a grackle, a flicker, and bluejay (1 or 2). The grackle was noticed first about a month ago and he has since improved his appearance with a few feathers, ditto for one of the jays. The flicker was bald as can be, but untouched from the shoulders down. I wonder why it is that the feather loss stops cleanly and evenly at this point in the neck. If the problem were mites or lice that were unable to be picked off by his beak (as you surmise), then one would think that there would not be such a clean delineation at the neck. I’m no expert, but that’s what I’ve observed at my porch feeder (Reading, Mass.).

    Posted by Jenny Hegmann
  12. Ranger Comment :

    Thanks for the comments Jenny.
    The big question remains, why the head and nowhere else.
    I was out today and saw a Blue Jay with the bald head syndrome, a Gray Catbird the other day. Of course, most birds in our area are molting at this time. Even so, they don’t drop all the feathers at once, not even on the head.
    I guess more research is needed.
    Thanks again,

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  13. Hi Greg,
    I live in Derry, NH and I had one of these birds too land on my deck yesterday afternoon. I was quite taken aback by its looks and gave me another look at this bird. My parents hooked me on birding when I was little and now have several feeders on my deck and once again daily I am propelled back to my child hood and my love for birds.

    Posted by Mara Paul
  14. Ranger Comment :

    Thanks for your comments, Mara.
    Some of my earliest, and fondest, memories are of watching birds as a child. The fascination that I had for birds then remains with me today.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  15. Found your site after trying to research the blue jay we have coming regularly to our feeder. In the past two weeks or so, it has lost every feather on its head. He doesn’t seem to wander far from our yard. We first noticed him because of how fat he seems to be. Then we noticed his head plumage was gone. We have been watching him daily. He eats well. Hopefully, he stays around long enough for us to see if his feathers come back. It is February, and most of the other blue jays have left our feeder now.
    We live in northern Wisconsin.

    Posted by Alice Sellwood
  16. Ranger Comment :

    Thanks for your observations Alice. Although it’s probably colder here in NC this morning (25 degrees at 7 AM) than it is where you are up in Wisconsin, our high today is expected to be around sixty. I don’t know how the birds can maintain their body heat with no feathers on their heads, especially in your area where I doubt it’ll get out of the thirties today. It’d be interesting to know if your bluejay makes it through the rest of the winter.
    Thanks, again.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  17. We have a few cardinals who are similarly affected. I found this page on the topic on Cornell’s ornithology web site:

    Posted by Tar Heel Tiger
  18. Ranger Comment :

    Even Cornell doesn’t seem to be able to shed any new light on the subject or have anything conclusive say. I find it hard to believe that no one out there has studied this. For years I’ve always thought that it was caused by mites and that the head was the only place that the bird couldn’t reach with its bill in order to pick the mites off.
    Hopefully, some day a graduate student will take this problem and solve it once and for all. Until then, I’m sticking with the “can’t reach the mites with the bill theory.”

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  19. I noticed a Cardinal with this affliction today. This is the first time I have ever seen a song bird look like this and can certainly say it isn’t normal. In my research I discovered an Ohio DNR article describing the affliction as “conjunctivitis” or otherwise an infection. This article indicates the infection most common to House Finches and is not contagious to humans, dogs, or cats. A relief to me since the birds frequent our dogs food bowls on the deck.
    Regardless I felt this information may be helpful to all reading this blog.
    The article can be viewed at

    The contact number in the article is no longer in service as I tried to call them today. I also have no idea how old the article is or when the number was taken out of service.

    Best regards!

    Posted by Bill
  20. Ranger Comment :

    Thanks for the info.
    I don’t think the conjunctivitis, Mycoplasma gallisepticum, is related to what the cardinals and other birds are experiencing with their feather loss. The conjunctivitis actually kills House Finches and it seems to be limited to, or most prevalent in, those birds.
    For those who don’t know, House Finches are an introduced species in the east when some of the birds were released in the 1940s in NY. They are native to the Southwest US and Mexico. They were quite abundant here in the east but their numbers are down from what they used to be in the 70s and 80s before sick birds were first noticed visiting bird feeders (mid 90s) here in the eastern US.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  21. I am so glad to find this,I watch the birds come to a feeder outside my window..could not figure out why the male cardinal was bald.I was afraid he was diseased.Thank you again.

    Posted by Ramona Eller
  22. Ranger Comment :

    You’re welcome.
    Enjoy the birds!

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  23. Found your post on the bald Cardinal while researching a similar bird in my backyard toady. First time I have seen this. It is late February in north east Wisconsin I don’t think it is molting. Take a look

    Posted by Mike
  24. Ranger Comment :

    Nice shot.
    No, I don’t think it’s molt either, but so far no one has come up with the definitive answer to what’s really going on.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  25. Watched a male cardinal progressively lose the feathers from face and head over the past month. He also seemed to struggle to stay warm, losing weight as he was vigorously pursued by other males. He apparently did not survive the cold 14 hour rain we had in Charlotte this last week. I tried to catch him because of the dropping temperatures & non-stop rain, but he was still flighted, although not getting normal altitude. I hoped to bring him in for care (I am a song-bird rehabilitator) & get a skin scraping to check for mites. I did notice he was much more interested in live food (beetles, meal worms, wax worms) than in seed. Will advise if he returns and if I catch him what the skin scrapings &/or cultures show.

    Posted by Leslie
  26. Ranger Comment :

    Excellent, I’m hoping the bird is still around and you’re able to catch him and get a scraping to see what might be causing the feather loss.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  27. I have a bald male cardinal that comes into my yard and feeder daily. I first started spotting him mid to the ending on March of this year. This is the first time I ever saw anything like this and thought at first that he was an old cardinal or molting. Until I found out differently from my mother-in-law who advised me to look up balding cardinals. He appears to be healthy; minus no feathers on his head and he holds his own against the other birds.

    Posted by Tracy
  28. Ranger Comment :

    Thanks for the input Tracy.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  29. These birds look great compared to my frequent feeder. His head is completely black–like a vulture

    Posted by Connie
  30. Ranger Comment :

    We have a few flying around here now that have the “vulture” style cut!

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  31. I found my neighborhood male cardinal friend, whom I’ve been feeding safflower seed and fresh unsalted peanuts for about 3 years, very ill at about 6:30 this evening. He could barely fly. I’m very sad as I think that will be the last time I ever see my favorite bird friend that I’ve gotten to know so well. I’ve developed a personal relationship with this bird for over the last three years, His name is “rojito.” When I used to call him, he would fly over to my home or to me. When I walk by a tree without noticing him, he will do his “chink” common call to say “hi” or to get my attention so that I can then feed him unsalted fresh peanuts that he so loves. He is a very dedicated spouse and father.

    Posted by Paul Mahan
  32. A mated female cardinal has been bald for months here in the Twin Cities Minnesota. Today I saw a male cardinal–not her mate–also bald in spots. He sang beautifully, though. But her mate didn’t like him singing in his territory. She, the bald female, has lost all of her tail feathers during egg-sitting season in other years. I wonder whether this baldness has something to do with the sensitivity of the individual bird to some sort of environmental conditions. I hope somebody can give us the definitive answer.

    Posted by HML
  33. Ranger Comment :

    I too, am waiting for a definitive answer.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  34. Ranger Comment :

    I hope Rojito pulls through and lives to see many more nesting seasons.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  35. Thank you for your kind words. I actually saw Rojito’s offspring several townhouses down today and throw him/her ? some pieces of peanut which he/she? happily devoured. Can’t tell whether it’s a male or female at this fledging’s tender age.

    Posted by Paul
  36. My wife located your website for me when I pointed out that we have a bald cardinal visitor. We have dozens of cardinals in our neighborhood, for which we are very grateful, but I had never seen a balding one before. It was shocking and I was not even sure of what I was observing. So it was reassuring to read your own explanations.

    However, this year I am noticing another anomaly. I have observed a couple of cardinals with very dark pigmentation. These are males who are almost black! I am not a good photographer, so I have no visual records, but what am I looking at? Any ideas? Thanks, KB

    Posted by KB
  37. Ranger Comment :

    As far as the “very dark” cardinals, one question, where do you live?

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  38. Hello. My name is Ken Bennett and my wife and I live in Frontenac, MO, a suburb of St. Louis. I should have said that. We live in a neighborhood of 1-2 acre lots with lots of trees and large expanses of lawn. This is like paradise to us, a duo of deeply interested, but passive (and elderly) birders. When the weather is good, Renee and I have our morning coffee on the patio and often a drink in the evening. We both love birds and life is good here.

    Posted by KB
  39. Thank you for this summary! I have been wondering what is going on with my male only cardinals! Certainly sounds like what is happening in my yard.

    Posted by mare

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by , Ranger
Greg Dodge is a professional naturalist as well as a writer, videographer and producer of natural history DVDs. His images have been used in various TV productions, museum displays, and corporate videos. Above all, he has a fascination and passion for all things natural.
Stop by and say hello Tuesday thru Saturday in Explore the Wild, Catch the Wind, or on the Dino Trail.

The Mysterious Red Tubular Growth

June 3rd, 2010

The voice on the radio (Animal Department Director, Sherry Samuels) said that there was a cluster of strange, red, tube-like fungi growing out of the ground next to the Lemur House and wondered if I knew what it was.


One of the many strange growths growing in the leaf litter next to the the Lemur House (approx. 4″ tall).

I said that I didn’t know what it was but would stop by and have a look at them later.

It was a few days before I finally made it to the site and, after having a look at the horn-shaped growths and agreeing that they were obviously some sort of fungus, I still didn’t know exactly what they were.

Some of them were “wilted” and laying on the ground while others appeared fresh, if fungus can be termed as being fresh.


Some of the growths were obviously gone by while others appeared to be new growth.

I happen to have an identification guide to mushrooms and after a quick browse through the many photos in the book I was able to come up with a match, Elegant Stinkhorn (Mutinus elegans).

The visible “horns” of this stinkhorn are the spore bearing stems. Just below the leaf litter are “eggs” from which the stems “hatch.”


An egg (fruit body) on the left and a fully emerged horn (stem).

stinkhorn egg

A stem breaking out of its egg.

The eggs, according to my mushroom guide’s author, are edible, “…but not recommended.” I don’t think that I’ll be tempted to try them regardless.

Case closed.

There’s nothing like a good mystery to start off the week!

Six days after the case of the stinkhorns, I came across a more typical member of that strange group of organisms (not animal, not plant) growing under a dogwood near the entrance to the Dinosaur Trail.

parasol mushroom

This tall, lean mushroom (approx. 12″ tall) was growing under a small Flowering Dogwood next to the Parasaurolophus on the Dinosaur Trail.

I’m not certain about the identity of this mushroom, but think that it’s a Parasol Mushroom (Lepiota procera). The height, scaling on the cap, and season (June-October) as well as other features seem right for the species, but I’m not positive. My guide says that in regard to the identity of Parasol Mushrooms ”smell is important and should be noted” but it doesn’t say exactly what that smell should be, only that it’s “slight, not distinctive.” I guess you have to be a connoisseur of mushrooms to understand what that means.

parasol mushroom

The following day the parasol opened. The small ring below the cap, or parasol, is supposed to be movable up and down the stem on this species. I didn’t learn that until after the fact and didn’t try to move it (it looks like it could slide up and down the stem).

I’m not recommending this or any other mushroom be consumed, but according to my guide, Parasol Mushrooms are rated as “excellent” for edibility with a “sweet” in the taste category. Again, I’m not going to eat one of these mushrooms and don’t recommend that you do either, just quoting my guide.

The guide that I used for the identifications of the stinkhorn and parasol (if that’s what it is) is Mushrooms of North America, by Roger Phillips. It’s a large format book and not really suited for work in the field (it won’t fit into your pocket), but it has over a thousand photos and extensive descriptions of the many mushrooms included within its pages.

Happy hunting.

Join the conversation:

  1. How fascinating! And elegant!

    Posted by Erin Brown
  2. Thanks for figuring this out for me and sharing it with everyone Greg.

    Posted by Sherry
  3. Ranger Comment :

    Thanks Erin.
    It is indeed fascinating…all of the little mysteries of nature that are out there waiting to be discovered.

    Posted by Greg Dodge, Ranger
  4. Ranger Comment :

    You’re welcome, Sherry. Thanks for pointing them out to me!

    Posted by Greg Dodge, Ranger
  5. Eureka! I just discovered one of these today along our driveway. Strangely, it’s not a very moist environment, barring the fact that we’ve had a really wet spring. Our stinkhorn was brilliant orange, just like a carrot and there were several bottle flies crawling on it. I snapped a couple photos before it was ultimately destroyed by some construction activity. Thanks so much! I searched “strange tubular fungus” and here you were!!

    Posted by Keri
  6. Ranger Comment :

    Good, glad you were able to figure it out.
    One of our Rangers (Erin) here at the Museum found one last week as well. There was one above ground and another about to “hatch,” but unfortunately, I think it was trampled on. It was right next to one of the trails here with heavy traffic.
    Have a good one,

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  7. I also want to thank you. I found a group of four of these mushrooms in my front yard flower bed and was mustified! I Googled tubulat mushroom and “whaaLaa!” your photos and explanations came up. Must also mention that there is a very heavy mucklike smell that is almost sickening to these mushrooms. Maybe that is where they got their name:Stinkhorn. Dennis Dotson

    Posted by Dennis Dotson
  8. Ranger Comment :

    Thanks for the comments Dennis.
    And yes, the smell is the reason for the stinkhorn part of its name.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  9. Thank you!! I found a stinkhorn in my back yard and was totally mystified… my son found your blog or I would still be wondering.

    Posted by Gayla Rihaly
  10. Ranger Comment :

    Good, good, glad you found us.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  11. I just found a couple of their “eggs” behind the duck yard. They’ve been sitting on my desk the last couple of days waiting for you to come back to work. It started to “hatch” this morning. I remembered you did a post about odd looking smelly red fungus and now I don’t need to save the juicy smelly red things for you to ID. Thanks Greg!

    Posted by Sarah
  12. Ranger Comment :

    Always a pleasure.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  13. is the Tubular Red Fungas toxic to dogs if they come in contact wioth it or eat one? How do I get ried of them?

    Posted by cynthia
  14. Ranger Comment :

    I could find no reference stating that this fungus is toxic to dogs. In fact, most references say that it is not toxic and is of little concern to dog owners who worry that their dog will eat the stinkhorns and become ill.
    The fungus with wither, dry up and disappear on its own. It you want to hurry the process and dig it up, go ahead, make sure you get the “eggs” beneath the surface.
    Good luck!!

    Posted by Greg Dodge

    Posted by CAROLYN JONES
  16. Ranger Comment :

    Good, I’m glad you were able to figure out the identity of the stinkhorn.
    They will laugh no more! Well, maybe.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  17. i found a stinkhorn in my yard, i was wondering how can I get rid of it?

    Posted by jessy sandel
  18. Ranger Comment :

    You could leave it be and it will eventually go away. Or, you could take a shovel and turn over the dirt where it’s growing. Turn over the dirt several times until the stinkhorn is completely chopped into small pieces, diced.

    Posted by Greg Dodge

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by , Ranger
Greg Dodge is a professional naturalist as well as a writer, videographer and producer of natural history DVDs. His images have been used in various TV productions, museum displays, and corporate videos. Above all, he has a fascination and passion for all things natural.
Stop by and say hello Tuesday thru Saturday in Explore the Wild, Catch the Wind, or on the Dino Trail.

The Big White Tree with the Peeling Bark

March 3rd, 2010
am sycamore

American Sycamore

I was recently asked whether or not I knew why the bark on American Sycamore drops off the tree in large thin flakes. Coincidentally, while walking around the Outdoor Exhibits this winter with camera in hand, I’ve been taking photos of various trees to use on this blog in a series of informal, mini-field guides. My intention was to start with some of the more readily identifiable winter trees, trees without leaves. Although winter’s nearly over, this is a good time to squeeze in at least one of those mini-guides.

One of the easiest of trees to identify is the American Sycamore. It’s white upper bark standing off against the winter sky, and other trees in the forest, make it hard to miss and appreciate.

Sycamore is a tree of the bottomlands. Just about any stream or river in our area has it’s share of sycamores growing along its banks, often alongside River Birch. Here at the Museum it grows next to the Wetlands as well as in the swamp between Catch the Wind and Explore the Wild. This handsome tree is often planted along city streets but its roots are near the water.

Many trees have a different type of bark at the base of the trunk than they do at the younger, upper portion of the tree. The sycamore takes this to the extreme.

Take a look at the tree on the right. Scroll up and follow the bark up to the top. It starts out as “typical” gray bark. As you scroll up you’ll notice that the darker bark begins to flake off until finally it becomes nearly all white at the top of the tree.

Towards the middle of the three, starting at about a quarter to a third-way up the tree, the bark often appears “camouflaged” with various gray, brown, and green hues.

Below are some close-ups of the bark.

lower bark

The lower portion of the trunk has rough gray-brown bark.

middle of tree

The bark becomes scaly and flakes off about 1/4 the way up the trunk. It often appears as if camouflaged.

Towards the top of mature trees the bark may be nearly all white.

But, why do sycamores shed their bark? Why does the bark peel off in large thin flakes all season long? I’ve sometimes wondered that myself, but apparently not long or hard enough to actually find out…until now.

Trees have bark to help protect them from losing moisture and drying out, protect themselves from insects (although there are many insects that get past this defense), birds (woodpeckers go in after the insects), and disease. And, all trees have bark specific to the trees themselves. Flowering Dogwood has scaly “alligator” bark. Loblolly Pine has furrowed, segmented bark which bares a resemblance to the loblollies on a dried lake bed. Shagbark Hickory has a shaggy appearance with big, gray pieces of bark sticking out from the trunk. Sycamore has bark that peels off and becomes white near the upper portion of the tree.

What evolutionary advantage is it for a tree to shed it’s bark the way sycamores do? Everything from the tree’s favored habitat to photosynthesis has been suggested by people who should know, people who study trees. Most of the theories that I’ve read seem like sound reasons for this bark shedding habit. Apparently though, there is no definitive answer to the question of why this tree looks and behaves the way it does.

Instead of me quoting or paraphrasing the various suggested answers to this question, from another source, it may be easier for you to read them yourself. The linked article is from the Daily Plant out of NYC, NY and tries to answer the question of why sycamore sheds its bark through an interview with Dr. Marc Abrams, Professor of Forest Ecology at Penn State University.

Oh yeah, back to the identification of the tree. If the bark doesn’t nail down the ID of this tree for you, perhaps the many fruit balls that typically dangle from the branches will do it.

Sycamore has fruit balls on its branches all winter.

The fruit hang from the tree throughout the winter, are about an inch to an inch and a quarter in diameter and, unlike the spiky seed balls of Sweetgum, are soft to the touch.

On your next walk through Explore the Wild stop at the platform midway down the boardwalk. If you stand facing the Animal Footprints Exhibit and look about 40 degrees or so to your left you’ll see an excellent example of an American Sycamore with all of the features described above. Another is about the same amount of degrees to your right. If you look about 90 degrees to your right you’ll see a slim, straight sycamore which is nearly all green, all the way to the crown. Why is this sycamore green and not white? That one will have to wait for another day, maybe.

Enjoy your walk.

Join the conversation:

  1. We have a tree like that in our yard and we never knew what kind of a tree it was. Know we know…

    Posted by Joseph Caswell
  2. Thanks for the post!! Very informative, if not totally conclusive. I was looking at the sycamores again yesterday and noticed that, along with their fruit balls, there were what looked like some little balls of fluff hanging from the branches. I guess the seeds are about ready to disperse? Has the warmer weather awakened them?

    Posted by Leslie A
  3. Ranger Comment :

    That’s right, the seeds are ready to disperse. The balls break apart and the seeds are cast to the wind. In fact, with the steady SW winds today (Wednesday, 3/10) I saw many of the seeds floating by me like little paratroopers as I stood on the boardwalk and elsewhere in Explore the Wild and Catch the Wind.

    Posted by Greg Dodge, Ranger
  4. We have dozens of these trees in my neighborhood, and I couldn’t figure out if they were diseased or what was the reason for them shedding their bark. I couldn’t identify them either except that they were white where the bark was gone. Thanks for clearing up this mystery for me.

    Posted by Elizabeth Westra
  5. Ranger Comment :

    My pleasure, Elizabeth.
    Although these trees are associated with wet areas they have been planted extensively along streets and avenues across the country. How many towns and cities have a Sycamore Avenue, Lane, or Street?

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  6. Thanks for the info–tried several sites to identify but mostly leaf ID’S. I’m a “recycler” of trees, i.e., in my fireplace or neighbors with woodstoves and the ash goes to my compost. Have several downed A.S. in my area and wanted to know if hardwood before I “light up?” How hard is A.S.??

    Posted by Jim McDole
  7. Ranger Comment :

    I’ve never burned sycamore but a quick search revealed that it is “OK” to burn, not the best but it will produce a moderate amount of heat. Make sure that you season it, let it dry out. I would think that if you’re cutting it now it probably won’t be ready before next winter.
    Good luck,

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  8. Thanks for the info!! Your site’s the best.

    Posted by Jim McDole
  9. I never thought about the trunk of a large, mature sycamore continuing to grow when I had a tree house built around mine in 2008. Now the tree has filled the gap in the flooring and has popped some of the smaller boards loose. Is there any chance that other areas will grow around the framing, like in the roof, or is my tree house doomed?

    Posted by Lynette Gaines
  10. Ranger Comment :

    Not being able to see your tree house I can’t tell what may happen to it, but yeah, the tree will continue to grow as long as it’s alive. There is more of a height limit than there is a girth limit, the trunk keeps getting wider, hence the rings inside the trunk. There’s a tree near Waynesville, NC that is “132 feet tall and 268 inches wide” (probably means 268 inches in circumference), which is about 22.3 feet in circumference. There’s a stump of a dead sycamore in Indiana that was/is 57 feet in circumference when a storm split the trunk and knocked it over.
    Good luck!

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  11. I was driving through a section of Rouge Park in Detroit and noticed a group of white trees with patchy, scaling bark. Thanks for your in depth explanation.

    Posted by Chae
  12. Ranger Comment :

    Glad to have helped.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  13. My to sons planted one each on Arbor day over 20 years ago as little saplings and now they are about 50+ tall. Out of all these years I have never seen it shed this much at one time. We had a storm with straight line winds up to 90 mph about six weeks ago and lost some big limbs in the process along with having to cut some off with a chainsaw which I would think it would cause a growing spret. My question is could a sudden spert in growth cause shedding , kind of like buying a 10 year old clothes and they out grow them as fast as you can buy them?

    Posted by Robert21
  14. Ranger Comment :

    I don’t really know whether or not a quick spurt in growth could cause more shedding, but in theory it sounds good.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  15. My neighborhood has hundreds of London Planes – my house alone has 3. There has never been shedding like this, all the trees at once. The sidewalks and yards are covered in bark. There must be a weather-related cause to this phenomenon.

    Posted by R Gordon

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by , Ranger
Greg Dodge is a professional naturalist as well as a writer, videographer and producer of natural history DVDs. His images have been used in various TV productions, museum displays, and corporate videos. Above all, he has a fascination and passion for all things natural.
Stop by and say hello Tuesday thru Saturday in Explore the Wild, Catch the Wind, or on the Dino Trail.

Big Blue and the Bull

May 15th, 2010

The Great Blue Heron is back, and hungry!

A Bullfrog makes a nice meal for a heron. Our resident heron (below) has captured a large male frog.


This Great Blue Heron's in pretty deep. Not only is it up to its belly in the water but it has nabbed a large, squirming male Bullfrog.

With a firm grip on the frog, the heron wades over to a nearby island to safely prepare the frog for consumption.

gbh frog

The heron takes the frog over to one of the Wetland's small islands to make preparations for eating.


Although mortally wounded, the frog may still be able to escape if dropped in the water.

The frog must be rendered motionless before it’s gulped down. A squirmy, wiggling frog may accidentally be dropped in the water and could be lost among the weeds and algae, too much time and energy goes into the capture to let that happen. The island allows for a safe place to work on the frog.


After repeatedly dropping the frog and stabbing at it until it no longer moved, it was finally time to eat the frog.


Gripping the frog head first makes for an easier slide down the heron's long throat.


Several minutes after gulping down the frog the heron waded out into the water to survey the scene.


The heron takes off for a favorite perch.

The whole sequence took approximately 13 minutes, from capture to take off, when the heron retreated to a favorite perch to digest, preen, and rest.

Life in the Wetlands.

Join the conversation:

  1. Director Comment :

    How amazing to be able to see this- thanks Greg. What time of day was it?

    Posted by Sherry Samuels
  2. Ranger Comment :

    It was indeed amazing to see. But, there’s always something amazing happening in the Wetlands, you just have to be there to see it. Fortunately, I’m lucky enough to be out there most of the day.
    The time was 3:22-3:35 PM.

    Posted by Greg Dodge, Ranger
  3. This is worthy of National Geographic. Fantastic, Greg!!

    Posted by Wendy
  4. Web Geek Comment :

    Is there a reason the Heron went back into the water to eat the frog?

    Posted by Beck Tench
  5. Ranger Comment :

    Although it appears that the heron may have walked back out into the water, in the photo of the bird getting ready to tilt its head back and swallow, it was actually standing at the edge of the water as it finally gulped down the frog. The frog was quite dead at the time with little chance of it wriggling free and swimming away.

    Posted by Greg Dodge, Ranger
  6. Ranger Comment :

    Thanks Wendy!
    There are hundreds of little dramas being played out at any given time in the Wetlands, anyone who cares to witness them can do so, if they have the inclination.
    See you in the Wetlands.

    Posted by Greg Dodge, Ranger
  7. Terrific sequence of shots! What camera did you use? Where were you standing?

    Posted by Karyn
  8. Really wonderful images Greg! Good work.

    Posted by Laura H.
  9. Ranger Comment :

    Thanks Karyn.
    The camera used was a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ35.
    Initially, I was standing on the Wetlands Overlook, then quickly moved to the boardwalk between the pavement and the Black Bear Overlook.
    Have a good one.

    Posted by Greg Dodge, Ranger
  10. Ranger Comment :

    Thanks Laura.
    It seems as though this series of shots has generated much interest.
    Thanks again, and hope to see you down by the Wetlands soon.

    Posted by Greg Dodge, Ranger
  11. Your best obsevation yet! Nicely done!

    Posted by Leon Bradford
  12. Ranger Comment :

    Thanks Leon.
    I wish I had more time to document all of what goes on out there, in the wild.

    Posted by Greg Dodge, Ranger

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by , Ranger
Greg Dodge is a professional naturalist as well as a writer, videographer and producer of natural history DVDs. His images have been used in various TV productions, museum displays, and corporate videos. Above all, he has a fascination and passion for all things natural.
Stop by and say hello Tuesday thru Saturday in Explore the Wild, Catch the Wind, or on the Dino Trail.

Northern Water Snake vs Copperhead

May 29th, 2013

It’s almost a daily occurrence, I’d be watching a water snake coiled up and snoozing in the grass on the north side of the Wetlands, point the snake out to someone passing by and they’d say, “That looks like a Copperhead,” or, “Is that a moccasin, cottonmouth?” or most often, “Is it poisonous?”

The answer to that statement and those questions is always no.

In explaining my no response, last question first, no snake in our area is poisonous. It’s an honest mistake but the correct word for a biting snake with fangs that injects toxins into its prey, or enemies, is venomous.

Moving forward, water moccasins, or cottonmouths as they are often called, are scarce above the fall line, or coastal plain in our state. This too is an honest mistake for some folks. The Museum, in Durham, is not very far from the fall line (just one county east) and many people who visit us live below the fall line where they are likely to encounter cottonmouths. That’s not to say that a cottonmouth has never been or never will be seen above the fall line or in Durham, but the chances are pretty slim.

The copperheads? The pictures below do a better job of replying to the statement, “That looks like a Copperhead,” than simple words.

A Northern Water Snake crossing the path in Explore the Wild (5/7/13).

A Copperhead crossing the path in Explore the Wild (5/17/13).

And here they are again in direct comparison.

Water snake (top) and copperhead.

Putting aside the broad, copper-colored head of the bottom snake, look at the pattern. Although variable, the pattern on the northern water snake is never as clean and bright as it is on the copperhead, at least in our area.

Both patterns serve their wearer well in their respective habitats. The close banding on the water snake works well in the reflective, dappled light of a watery domain while the wide-spaced, hourglass pattern on the copperhead suits its leaf-littered wooded haunts. They’re easy to see on the pavement, but not so easy to spot in their natural habitats.

If you like to hike in the woods you’ve probably walked past more copperheads than you’d care to know about. You may have even stepped directly over one without realizing it. But that’s a story for another time.

Look at the patterns on the snakes above and you should have no problem differentiating a northern water snake from a copperhead. As I said, the water snake’s pattern is variable, some may be darker, lighter, or may even be quite red, but the pattern on the copperhead is locally consistent.

Have fun!


Join the conversation:

  1. thanks. Everyone thinks I’m a dork for dissing their supposed copperhead. Now I point them here.

    Posted by Bill Knighton
  2. Ranger Comment :

    What’s your location, Bill?

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  3. Near lake wheeler , Raleigh.

    Posted by Bill knighton
  4. This is a useful comparison of the markings on the two snakes. I have seen both in this area, around the Eno River, in particular.

    Posted by Robin Sheedy
  5. Ranger Comment :

    Yes, the question of “Is that a Copperhead?” comes up so often here at the Museum that I thought it a good idea to point the differences out in simple photos.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  6. Thank you so much for this article! I used to work as an assistant wildlife biologist in NJ specializing in T&E surveys and it drives me crazy the amount of people down here who see a snake and just assume its venomous and kill it. The NC Herp Society doesnt seem to really update their NC Snake guide or website with regard to changes in scientific names and ranges so it makes it very hard to direct people to the proper resources for them to decide for themselves.

    Posted by Kat Squibb
  7. Just found your site when I was looking up a snake that was near my husband (who was outside – in Durham – mowing the lawn). Wasn’t sure what it was, and didn’t want to kill an innocent creature, now I know it was a copperhead. Thank you for posting this! It was very helpful.

    Posted by Barbara
  8. Ranger Comment :

    Good, glad to have helped.

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  9. Hi, I was in the northeastern part of Tennessee near a lake. I was around 5-8 miles away from it. This area does have water snakes (I’ve seen their little heads sometimes in the lake) and copperheads are prevalent.

    I ran into a snake that was around 4-6 ft in my opinion. It was a dark gray, almost black with an off white/pale yellow tinted pattern on it’s back.

    I was in 2 ft of this beautiful snake when I had the thought to back off a little bit because I didn’t really know what a copperhead looked like.

    But it was on the road (basking I’m assuming) and was starting to head into the tall grass/woods nearby.

    I never got a look at the head, and it didn’t seem aggressive (but then again, I wasn’t bothering it).

    Would you say it was a darker morph of a copperhead or a water snake? It was a beautiful snake regardless.

    Posted by Angela W.
  10. Ranger Comment :

    Hard to say exactly what you saw. Judging from the size of the snake you described, and the location, I’d have to guess it may have been one of the rat snakes. See here:

    Posted by Greg Dodge
  11. Thanks for the direct comparison photos! There was a large snake on the rocks by the local creek next to the community pool, and after looking here, it was clearly a Northern Water Snake. Now we all say ‘hi’ if we see it and leave it be.

    Posted by Maureen Berner
  12. Ranger Comment :

    It’s probably a good idea to let all sleeping snakes lie, but yes, you should at least say “Hi.”

    Posted by Greg Dodge

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