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Cardinal Rules

I hadnít had a female aggressively approach me like this before. I was trimming an overgrown forsythia bush when I noticed her. Iíd seen her at a distance before, but never this close. She repeatedly made a sound like two pieces of metal striking together and came toward me from the opposite side of the bush.

I watched her approach, forgetting about the forsythia trim job. As she got closer, I had the sense that she did not plan to rip my face off, but was trying to tell me something important. She got within inches of my face. Then her significant other popped up, echoing the metallic ďchipĒ sound she was making. It was then that the proverbial light flashed in my brain, as I realized that this pair of cardinals must have a nest in the bush.

I looked around the branches before me and saw nothing. I then looked up and found the nest was almost sitting on top of my head. No wonder she had come so close.

The nest was cup-shaped and constructed at a branching point in the bush that was close to 6 feet from the ground. She had used a piece of plastic sheeting snatched from my woodpile as a foundation, built the sides up with thin twigs woven together, and added pine needles as a floor. Inside the nest were three light-greenish-blue eggs splattered with brownish speckles.

Above the nest, a thick growth of forsythia leaves provided cover from the elements, possible winged predators and (sometimes without success) passing humans. I ceased my bush clipping. While the green canopy over the nest was still intact, I had thinned the branches on one side of the bush before stopping. This would later allow me to see if she was on the nest from a less-threatening 10 feet away.

I backed off and she quickly settled in on the eggs. Her bright red paramour flitted in and out of the bush delivering food to her via a kisslike exchange. Her coloring was not as bright as his. She was a brownish color with red-orange highlights on her wings, tail and crest.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I checked in on the nest frequently. I watched as the eggs became three tiny, blind and helpless hatchlings with insatiable appetites that required their winged parents to provide a constant delivery of bugs. They persistently raised their heads and begged for more food. Soon their eyes were open and became tiny brown dots that would stare back at me. Their mother became used to my presence, allowing me to get within a few inches of her as she sat in the nest. The youngsters always froze in my presence, not making a move or a sound.

As the days passed, the baby birds sprouted brown and gray feathers and started to look crowded in their nest. One morning I checked on them and they looked like they were stretching out the nestís wall. Later that day I checked again and they were gone, off to fend on their own wings and never to return to the nest. I later observed one fledgling trailing the male, apparently learning the fine points of foraging while getting fed a little along the way. I felt a loss at their leaving the nest, but I also knew that these young birds would continue to consume local insect pests. Their birth in the bush also provided an affirmation of my bird-friendly landscaping efforts.

Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are one of the most recognized birds in this part of the world. The bright red male with his head crest and black mask is hard to miss. The bird is a New World species and is closely related to grosbeaks and buntings. Its ancient bird genealogy traces back more than 150 million years to dinosaur ancestors.

The cardinal received its name from early European observers who noted the red coloration of the males was similar to the color of fabrics worn by cardinals, high-ranking religious officials in the Roman Catholic Church. Its current level of favor is reflected in the fact that a record seven states have designated it as their state bird.

Cardinals prefer brushy land, thickets, and open areas along the edge of forests for their territories. The cardinal has expanded its geographic range during the last century. A hundred years ago the bird was primarily confined to the southeastern United States, but has since spread into the Northeast and westward. This expansion has probably been fostered by such factors as the reduction of forested areas, the growth of human settlements that result in vegetation patterns preferred by the birds and the availability of increasing numbers of bird feeders. The earliest reported observation of cardinals nesting in the Northeast was in Connecticut in 1943. Cardinals are now yearlong residents in our area.

The cardinal is a songbird, but unlike most singing birds, both males and females engage in the activity. One researcher recorded 28 different songs in the birdís repertoire. Until the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 banned the practice, large numbers of these birds were trapped and caged like canaries because of this singing ability. Many were exported to Europe or died along the way.

I often find the pair that set up nesting in my forsythia bush perching on the trellises in my garden in the early morning hours, picking off bugs and practicing their tunes. While insects make up the total diet of cardinal hatchlings, adults have a more diverse diet that includes seeds, grains and fruits, with insects making up about a third of their food intake. There is plenty of bug chow available in the gardens around my house, and the cardinals seem to find it sufficient to lay claim to the territory. I look forward to their continuing residence and their simple (and nontoxic) pest management proclivities. And now, Iíve got a forsythia bush trimming to get back to.

óTom Nattell

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