Putting Up the Feeders

cardinal pair in a snowstorm

cardinal pair below the feeders in a snowstorm

The day after I cleared the trails of branches brought down by Hurricane Sandy, I hung my birdfeeders up for the first time since the previous April. Because bears live on our mountain, I never tempt them with birdseed, having learned years ago that they will go to great lengths to make a meal of them and, in the process, tear feeders apart.

Even so, I bring them in every night until mid-December and again in March and early April.

I only put the feeders out as early as November because I am a veteran Project FeederWatch participant, having signed on for this citizen science project, developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the first year it was offered. Last fall was its and my 26th season, and it began on November 10.

Anyone can join this continent-wide effort by paying a small fee and either sending in paper copies of their count or doing it online at the Lab’s website. If the former, feeder watchers count birds at and near their feeders two consecutive days every two weeks. If the latter, as I do, I can count birds two consecutive days every week. Since I have a reasonably small and simple set-up, mostly I glance out my back kitchen door window and keep a tally card nearby.

The idea is to count the maximum number of each species that I see at one time during my count days. Folks with larger and more elaborate feeding areas containing numerous feeders, sources of water and plantings can report all the species attracted to their much larger count site.

In addition to reporting the birds I see, the report asks for when and how long I counted, the depth of snow and/or ice, the kind and length of time of any precipitation, and the low and high temperatures of the days. Once a season I also fill out a detailed description of my count site including the habitat within a half mile, elevation, the kinds of food I supply for the birds, and the plantings and water sources within 100 feet of my feeders.

Usually I give the birds a week before the start of the season to re-discover the large and small tube feeders that hang from our back porch. Last November third it was cold, overcast, and windy, and as soon as my feeders went up and I spread more birdseed below the back steps, the dark-eyed juncos, back from the north, flew in. They were quickly followed by full-time residents—white-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice, and a red-bellied woodpecker. Next, song sparrows and American goldfinches, a few of which are full-time residents, appeared and so did the first white-throated sparrow of the season, also down from the north.

pine siskin and house finch

pine siskin and house finch

The seventh species to appear was a house finch. Here on our mountain they continue to be late fall and early winter visitors and are often gone by February. Project FeederWatch asks that participants note the presence or absence of eye disease in this species and in goldfinches. I’ve never seen this bacterial infection in the latter but sometimes in the former and I wonder if that is why their numbers peak and crash so soon. Years ago, when this western species, accidentally introduced to the East back in 1940, finally arrived on our mountain, they even nested here. But then their numbers crashed when they developed eye disease, and they never nested here again.

The house finch was followed by a black-capped chickadee and a male and female northern cardinal—two more permanent residents.

And then—glory be—25 pine siskins. Could this boreal bird species be the vanguard of an influx of rare northern birds? Every November a few pine siskins and common redpolls are reported by feeder watchers in Pennsylvania and hopes are raised that this will be the winter for a huge irruption of seed-eating birds from Canada. Reports of a widespread failure in seed-crop production, especially of spruces and birches, had already reached bird listservs so I was delighted to welcome the pine siskins.

The eleventh species of the day was one of our Carolina wrens, now successfully wintering as our climate warms and raising families here in the spring and summer.

A migrating swamp sparrow was the twelfth and last species that day. Never before had so many species appeared the first day I put out the feeders.

swamp sparrow

swamp sparrow below the feeders

The following day a fox sparrow appeared. This lovely, large sparrow always visits us on it way north in the summer and south in the winter. Because of its size—seven inches—it could easily dominate the smaller birds as it scratches towhee-like at the seeds below the back steps, but usually this rusty-tailed sparrow is off by itself, completely ignoring the juncos, song sparrows, and other ground-feeding birds.

Number 14 the next day was the gorgeous male purple finch, his head, breast and rump a rosy-red more brilliant and wide-spread than his close relative the house finch. But unlike the house finch, the purple finch belongs in eastern North America.

The female purple finch, like the house finch, is a study in brown and white, but she is chunkier and has a face patched with dark brown and a white stripe behind her eye.

“Don’t you see,” I frequently say to my husband, Bruce, when I try to point out the difference between the two species. But he doesn’t see what seems so obvious to me.

Then number 15, the American tree sparrow, another northern-breeding species, appears, and Bruce throws up his hands, muttering something about lbjs, better known as “little brown jobs” among birders in the know who can distinguish the many similar-appearing sparrow species and other difficult to identify birds such as the often different colored females. Unlike the seed-eating boreal species, tree sparrows are regulars at my feeders every winter. With its rusty-red head and black dot on its white breast it’s an easy sparrow for me to identify.

common redpoll

common redpoll at the feeder, January 2008

Numbers continued to increase day by day and the sixteenth species, on November sixth, was a sharp-shinned hawk. On that day it didn’t catch a meal because all the birds heeded the chickadee’s warning call and fled.

On the seventh a blue jay and a mourning dove joined the feeder birds while the male purple finch continued to hang around. Already, I was anticipating an excellent FeederWatch count.

But the weather warmed up, and it was a true Indian summer day. The second day was too. As a consequence, both the numbers and species were low—two white-breasted nuthatches, five American goldfinches, three tufted titmice, two black-capped chickadees, 12 house finches (one with eye disease), two red-bellied woodpeckers, three dark-eyed juncos, one song sparrow, one cardinal, and one purple finch. At least I had gotten a purple finch, but on the eleventh it was a male and the twelfth a female, yet, according to the rules, I could only count one purple finch. The same was true for the northern cardinals.

The thinking is that since the male and female of most feeder bird species look similar and are counted as a group, those that are sexually dimorphic, such as the cardinals and purple finches, must be treated the same way. Hence, even though I knew that two cardinals and two purple finches came to my feeders, I could only report one unless both sexes appeared together which, in this case, they did not.

sharp-shinned hawk at feeder

Sharp-shinned hawk at the feeder

The weather continued mild throughout the month and into mid-December, much to my disgust as a feeder watcher and the disgust of our deer hunters. I never did see another pine siskin, and my feeder counts remained low except for the juncos that increased to 20 by the end of the month. The sharpie also returned on that last November count, but once again it didn’t score.

The sharpie waited until the day before Christmas. Our Newfoundland daughter-in-law Pam called us to the bow window and pointed out the sharpie eating a female cardinal on the ground below. She took some photos of it in action that even showcased its orange eyes outlined in black.

Having gotten a meal, it was back the last day of December sitting on an ash tree branch close to the bow window in mid-afternoon for over half an hour. It wasn’t even disturbed by Bruce attaching his camera to the front of our spotting scope and taking frame-filling photos with his “digiscope” on the second day of a FeederWatch.

Such are the rewards of keeping a close watch on the birds that visit our feeders throughout the winter months. In addition, the records we send into Project FeederWatch, along with feeder watchers all over the continent, enable ornithologists to better understand the distribution of wintering birds and to track emerging diseases, such as the eye disease, and other problems birds may face.


All photos taken at Marcia’s birdfeeders. The first four are by Dave; the last is by Bruce, taken through his “digiscope” set-up.

Christmas Bird

He comes into our feeding grounds early on Christmas Day. Resplendent against the snow, he glows like a Christmas light. What is he doing here, among his drably suited brethren? Why isn’t he in the tropics with the other gaudily attired birds?

Once the northern cardinal was a southern bird. John James Audubon knew it as the “cardinal grosbeak” of Louisiana and South Carolina and declared that “in richness of plumage, elegance of motion, and strength of song, this species surpasses all its kindred.” James Lane Allen immortalized it in his book as THE KENTUCKY CARDINAL, and Virginia claimed it as its own with alternate names like “Virginia redbird” and “Virginia nightingale.” Naturalist/writer Henry David Thoreau never saw it around his Concord, Massachusetts’s home ground, because the first cardinal nested in Massachusetts in 1958, nearly a century after Thoreau’s death.

Here in Pennsylvania, cardinals were common in the southeastern and southwestern corners of the state by the late 1800s. Gradually, they moved north along the river valleys, reaching central Pennsylvania by 1912, Crawford County in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1928, and occupying the rest of the state by 1960, although they are scarce in heavily forested northcentral Pennsylvania.

Today cardinals are permanent residents throughout eastern and central North America from southern Canada to southern Mexico, northern Guatemala and Belize and west to Kansas, Oklahoma, and even southern portions of New Mexico and Arizona. In addition, they were successfully introduced in Hawaii, Bermuda, and California. Seven states claim the cardinal as their state bird–Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.

The cardinal is the quintessential generalist, living successfully in a wide range of habitats heavily impacted by humans. Instead of retreating when eastern forests were cut, cardinals began moving north, living in dense shrubbery planted in hedgerows and yards and actually preferring to forage on town and suburban lawns. They also live in shrubby, logged and second-growth forests, shrubby grasslands, and marsh edges.

Once the eastern forest cover was removed, the climate warmed up which also encouraged cardinals to go north. Then, humans started feeding birds in the winter, a final boon to north-moving cardinals that can survive an average minimum January temperature of five degrees Fahrenheit.

As anyone who feeds birds can attest, they come early in the morning and late in the afternoon on most winter days. The males are dominant, frequently chasing the females from food in late fall and early winter. Although many cardinals remain mated for life, they often join flocks of juveniles and adults in early autumn. Membership fluctuates but is usually between five and 20 and consists of equal numbers of males and females.

As the cold deepens, the size of the flock increases especially if there is abundant food and cover. Sometimes, cardinal flocks loosely associate with other species such as dark-eyed juncos, white-throated sparrows, tufted titmice, song sparrows, American tree sparrows, and American goldfinches.

Here on our central Pennsylvania mountain, favorite winter cardinal feeding areas are thickets of greenbrier and wild grapevines on sheltered south-facing slopes. No sight is lovelier on a winter day than that of a flock of cardinals against an azure winter sky eating grapes from vines high in the tree canopy.

On cold winter nights cardinals drop their body temperature three to six degrees and roost together in thick shrubbery or conifers to conserve heat. Last winter I realized that a cardinal roost existed in our Norway spruce grove, because on New Year’s Day I found a scattering of rosy-pink and gray female cardinal feathers there. Twenty-four days later, I flushed a barred owl from the grove and discovered another pile of cardinal feathers. On the eighth of February a third clump of cardinal feathers lay beneath the spruces. Had the culprit been the barred owl?

According to most sources I’ve checked, the major avian predators on adult cardinals are Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks and eastern screech owls. The latter sometimes kill cardinals on their night-time roosts. There was also at least one immature sharp-shinned hawk living in or near the grove throughout the winter.

Beside the second clump of feathers, I had noticed fox tracks, one of several mammal cardinal predators, and we had at least two feral cats in the area, still other cardinal killers, along with minks and weasels. As is often the case in the natural world, I could not definitively identify the culprit or culprits. All I knew was that for the first winter ever, after December we had no cardinals at the feeders until early March.

By then cardinals had been singing in the thickets since February 20. The pair that came into the feeders was already well into courtship mode although I didn’t see mate-feeding, an activity in which the male picks up a seed, hops over to the female, and, as she takes the food, they briefly touch beaks. But suddenly the dominant male was solicitous toward the female, and they both sang since female cardinals sing as well as males. They even engage in bouts of “countersinging,” when first one bird, usually the male, sings one phrase several times and then the other matches it. This type of singing is thought to synchronize and unify cardinal couples. When it is practiced between males, it helps to settle territorial disputes over each male cardinal’s two to 10-acre territory.

Once I even heard what sounded like a version of “countersinging” between a cardinal and a tufted titmouse. On a windy, partially sunny, early March day, I sat beneath a white oak tree on Dogwood Knoll.

“Pretty, pretty, pretty,” sang a cardinal.

“Peter, peter, peter” answered a titmouse.

For a few minutes the cardinal triumphed, singing seven “pretty” sequences to the titmouse’s one weak “peter.” Then the titmouse got his second wind and delivered a steady barrage of “peters” after every cardinal round. Finally, a second cardinal, probably the female, joined in with “cheer, cheer, cheer,” and the titmouse was vanquished.

Cardinal song begins in early February and waxes and wanes throughout the breeding period into August. Before new pairings take place, males may sing 150 to 200 or more songs in the dawn light. Females sing mostly before nesting or with the male through nest building. Males continue singing to a lesser degree during incubation by the female, and sing even less when feeding nestlings and fledglings.

That’s probably because the male is a busy, involved “husband” and “father,” feeding his mate every four or five minutes before nesting and once a minute when she is busy building her nest and laying her brown-speckled, olive-white, three to four eggs. He continues feeding her during the 12 to 13 day incubation period and is the major provider of food for his nestlings and fledglings.

She constructs the four-layered nest of stiff weed stems, leaves and/or plastic, grapevine bark, and rootlets in thick shrubbery, four to seven feet above ground at the edges of woods, in hedgerows or fence rows. Her favorite nesting shrubs are all invasives–Japanese honeysuckle, multiflora rose, and privet–although she will also use dense evergreens and native shrubbery.

The male accompanies her as she builds the nest, probably to protect her from predators and other males that might be interested in a little hanky-panky, known in the bird world as extra pair copulation. The nest-building takes as little as three and as long as nine days to finish.

Unfortunately, most cardinal nesting attempts are unsuccessful because of heavy predation on both eggs and nestlings by snakes, small mammals, particularly chipmunks and squirrels, and birds such as blue jays. But once they fledge, anywhere from 60 to 80 percent survive to adulthood. Fortunately, they have a long breeding period, from April 3 until August 16 in Pennsylvania, so they can produce as many as eight clutches. The cardinals’ motto should probably be, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

When the eggs do hatch, the young remain in the nest ten to 13 days. After fledging, they are dependent on their parents another 40 days. Mostly, they are fed insects even though the annual diet of cardinals consists of only 29% insects and 71% fruits and seeds. Cardinals eat at least 85 different insects and 77 plants. They especially like blackberry, raspberry and dogwood fruits and the seeds of wild grapes, smartweed, and bindweed. Other seed sources include sedges, foxtail, vetches, dock, sumac, vervain and tulip trees, as well as corn, oats, and oil sunflower. They also like the buds of trees, particularly elm and chokecherry, and they even drink sap from yellow-bellied sapsuckers’ tree wells.

Once the young learn to forage for themselves, they disperse probably no more than a mile from their parents’ territory, although a few banded young have been found as far as 100 miles away. By December they look just like their parents, and as soon as the adults start singing again, the juveniles listen, imitate, and finally learn to sing by April as beautifully as the older adults.

To me, cardinals epitomize a dignified beauty. That’s why the great Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus named the bird for red hatted and robed cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church–Loxia cardinalis. After several more changes, today its scientific name is Cardinalis cardinalis as if to emphasize its aristocratic bearing. To early twentieth century naturalist Neltje Blanchan, the cardinal grosbeak, as she called it, “appears to be a haughty autocrat…Bearing himself with a refined and courtly dignity, not stooping to soil his feet by walking on the ground like the more democratic robin, or even condescending below the level of the laurel bushes, the cardinal is literally a shining example of self-conscious superiority–a bird to call forth respect and admiration rather than affection.” But bird biographer and ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent probably sums up cardinal virtues best by writing that the cardinal possesses a “rare combination of good qualities, brilliant plumage, a rich and pleasing voice, beneficial food habits and devotion to its mate and family.”

For more information, the beautifully illustrated Northern Cardinal by Gary Ritchison published in 1997 by Stackpole Books should satisfy most cardinal admirers.