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
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
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.