Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are common backyard birds that we often take for granted, but their family life is very interesting.
Bob Kroeger photographed cardinals nesting in his Cape Cod backyard in May and June. The slideshow lets us pause and see what they’re doing.
The male is very bright red: This is good news for the family. Studies have shown that males with bright red breasts and females with bright underwings show more parental care to their young.
He feeds his mate at the birdbath: The male’s job is to feed his mate from nest building through brooding (and perhaps beyond). This makes sense because male cardinals don’t have brood patches. The females build the nest, incubate the eggs and brood the young.
She’s eating away from the nest: It’s perfectly normal for the female to spend time away from the nest, even if there are eggs in it. During incubation, which lasts 11-13 days, the female spends 30% of daylight hours away from the nest.
Two juveniles on a branch with their father: This cardinal couple beat the odds. The majority of nests fail due to predation.
How to recognize juvenile cardinals: The juveniles resemble their mother but their beaks are dark. (Adults have orange-red beaks.) The juveniles’ beaks will turn orange-red when they are 65-80 days old.
You can’t see the food in the father’s beak: The parents feed insects to their young but they carry the food far back in their large beaks. Researchers probably find this frustrating when they have to identify what the young are eating.
How long will the young depend on their parents? Juvenile cardinals are completely dependent on their parents for about 19 days. Around that time, their mother starts to build her next nest. Dad may feed the youngsters occasionally until they are 25-56 days old.
Eight of us went birding in Schenley Park today near and saw lots of cool bird behavior.
In the first fifteen minutes we saw an unusual scarlet tanager — bright orange like an oriole instead of scarlet like a tanager. We also had good looks at our Best Bird of the day: a beautiful male rose-breasted grosbeak.
Down the trail we found a tiny sentinel. A male ruby-throated hummingbird perched high on a dead snag watching his domain. We also found an Acadian flycatcher on her nest and an American robin feeding nestlings.
After so much rain the creek and first waterfall were running fast. Last Wednesday’s downpour washed a culvert into the gravel trail that reached right down to the bedrock — a layer of blue-green slate.
In all we saw / heard 29 species. The complete checklist is here.
p.s. I promised daisy fleabane and we did see it. Whew!
Though two of the chicks passed away I am happy to learn that the remaining two were fostered in a wild peregrine nest on a cliff in north central Pennsylvania.
Fostering is much better than hacking. In hacking, the chicks have no parents to learn from. In fostering, the chicks are placed in a family with chicks of similar age. The family accepts the newcomers and the parents feed and teach everyone.
“The Pennsylvania Game Commission on May 31 transported the chicks from a wildlife rehabilitation facility to the nest, where both adult and young peregrines had been seen. It quickly was apparent the adults at the nest accepted the new chicks as their own. The chicks were seen at the nest the next day, with chicks that had hatched in the nest and their parents.”
Elizabeth Bridge, Monongahela River, Allegheny County
Unfortunately, the Elizabeth Bridge nest site is dangerous for peregrine fledglings. This year we’ve learned that they land on the roadway on first flight. One fledgling was found dead on 5 June, the other was found injured on 3 June and taken to Wildlife Works rehab center.
During the week of 10 June observers checked the bridge often for signs of continued nest activity — especially looking for food deliveries — but there were none. The parents remain at the bridge. PennDOT has resumed construction work on the entire bridge.
Tarentum Bridge, Allegheny River, Allegheny-Westmoreland Counties
By now at least one of the three juveniles has fledged. Rob Protz reported this activity on 20 June 2018:
Tarentum: Fledge watch Wed. evening (between the raindrops).
The smaller juvenile was not seen. The two larger juveniles were present, mostly on top of the nestbox, though one did wander down to the downriver end of the railing early on after 6 PM. There was one visit by an adult – probably a food drop – but since it was mostly behind the box, it wasn’t very visible. One juvie did jump down and stay behind the box for a while at that point.
Green herons (Butorides virescens) are shy waders in swampy thickets, preferring to fish in the shadows and nest alone. Because of their secretive nature it’s always surprising to find a nest.
When green herons return to Pennsylvania in the spring they’re already paired up for nesting. The male chooses the location, usually in a small tree over water, giving preference to last year’s site if it was successful. He starts to build the nest but as soon as his lady gets the hint his job is to bring the sticks as she places them. Then she lays 4-5 eggs.
With this dual building effort it’s amazing that the structure is sometimes so thin that you can see the eggs through it from below.
That is, if you can find the nest. Green herons don’t want you to. They fly away loudly if you come too close. Typically they sound like this (Xeno Canto 147343 by Paul Marvin at Viera Wetlands, FL)
… but if they’re really annoyed they are much louder (Xeno Canto 145806 by Paul Marvin at Viera Wetlands, FL)
Right now most of Pennsylvania’s green herons have young in the nest and the parents are busy bringing food. At 16-17 days old the chicks will climb out of the nest — or swim if they have to. They’ll fly at 21-22 days old.
Stay alert for the sight and sound green herons. You might find a nest over water.
Summer arrived before the solstice. It’s time to get outdoors!
Join me for a bird & nature walk in Schenley Park on Sunday, June 24, 8:30a – 10:30a.
Meet at Bartlett Shelter on Bartlett Street near Panther Hollow Road. We’ll look in the meadow for birds and flowers, then explore the woodland trails. I’m sure we’ll see daisy fleabane. It’s blooming now.
Dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring binoculars and field guides if you have them.
Before you come, visit the Events page in case there are changes or cancellations. The outing will be canceled if there’s lightning.
Many of you have asked about the status of Dori and Louie’s peregrine chicks, taken from their Downtown Pittsburgh nest on 8 May 2018. I have no news of the chicks, but I do know the PA Game Commission planned to hack them at an undisclosed location. Based on the chicks’ age, I think this would have happened in early June.
What is peregrine hacking?
Hacking is a falconry term for the process of introducing captive chicks without parents to independent free flight. The Peregrine Recovery Program used this method to restore peregrines to the wild after they went extinct east of the Mississippi. Every wild peregrine in the eastern U.S. is descended from one or more hacked birds.