Female Northern Cardinals

I know that I have already written about Northern Cardinals, but I feel that the female Cardinal deserves some special attention. As I mentioned in an earlier post, because of the bright red color of the male Northern Cardinal, the females are often overlooked. But they are really just as interesting to watch and, in my opinion, their subtle hints of red are more striking than the bold display presented by their male counterpart.

The female Cardinal is the same size as the male, 8 ¾ -9 inches. She is a golden brown color with some red highlights on her tail, wings, crest and above her eye. She has a red beak, the same as her male counterpart and she has the same black mask on her face, though usually her mask is smaller and more subtle.

What I love most about the female Cardinals that visit my yard is their sassy attitude. They are just as likely to be aggressive with other birds as a male Cardinal, and there is nothing timid or passive about these ladies. Cardinals are usually one of the larger birds at my feeders and the females have no problem throwing their weight around if need be.

The female Cardinals I have been watching seem more adventurous than the males. The female Cardinals are often balancing on the feeders designed for smaller birds, and figuring out how to perch. Sometimes it takes a few tries, but they usually figure out a good, if awkward, way to balance. The males, either don’t have the patience or maybe have a bit more weight to them making this less likely.

Cardinal couples are monogamous for at least one breeding season, sometimes more. Bird monogamy, and the cheating therein, probably deserves a whole post of its own, and we won’t go into the genetics discussion right now. In one season they will have usually two or three broods. Once the first group have hatched, the male feeds and cares for them while the female goes off to lay and incubate the next clutch.

Northern Flicker

Common year round throughout most of the United States (with the exception of parts of Southern Texas, New Mexico and California), the Northern Flicker is not a regular visitor to my yard. Despite a limited number of sightings, I know Northern Flicker are in the neighborhood, as I can hear their distinctive, hyena like call: https://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/migratorybirds/education/nasongkey.pl?bird=Northern+Flicker

As a result of their scarcity in my yard, I am very excited whenever one makes an appearance and I can get a good photo. When I have sighted a Northern Flicker, in my yard or out on various walks, I have noticed that they seem more shy and skittish than other species of woodpecker. If you are lucky enough to be sitting, with a camera nearby, as I was for some of these photos, then you are golden. Any major movements, and the Northern Flicker will bolt. Not necessarily very far, but you will inevitably lose it in the chase.

While technically a woodpecker, you often see the Northern Flicker on the ground or very low to the ground, on stumps etc. This is due to their great affinity to ants. They eat primarily insects, so don’t expect to see them at your suet or seed feeders like many other woodpeckers. In a pinch they will eat nuts or grain, so you might get lucky if food is scarce. Due to their shorter legs, they hop around rather than walk.

Compared to other woodpeckers with their black and white patterning, the Northern Flicker is a bit more subtly feathered, with a golden-brown back, which often blends in to the background more effectively. In my region, the Northeast, the yellow-shafted sub-species is most common. There is also a red-shafted Northern Flicker, the shaft in both cases referring to the flight feathers. If you are looking at the Northern Flicker from the side while stationary, the only hint of yellow can be detected at the very edges of the wings.

All of the photos on this page depict male Northern Flickers. The most distinct difference between the male and female is the male’s black markings on his cheeks. While one of my field guides calls it a mustache and another refers to it as “black malar stripe,” it always reminds me of eye black glare, like football players use.

Other aspects of the appearance that help to identify a Northern Flicker from other woodpeckers are the spotted belly, as I mentioned the golden-brown coloring, and a gray head with a distinctive red patch.

Splish-splash in the Bird Bath

I was in search of the ideal bird bath for almost two summers before I finally settled with the weighted plastic model I bought from Lowes. Despite the fact that it wasn’t exactly the bird bath I had designed in my imagination, I was very happy to both provide my feathered friends with water and, of course, to observe and photograph their aquatic-antics.

So I did some bird bath research, made sure I was dumping the old water regularly and refilling it with fresh. I even converted a kitchen brush for scrubbing dishes into a bird bath scrubber to get rid of anything gross growing along the edge of the bird bath (I guess I used a bit to much elbow grease because after about three months of cleaning the bird bath, the finishing paint started pealing off the basin).

So my bird bath was in place, clean and welcoming, safe and ready to provide refreshing baths for hundreds of birds.

And they just never took a bath.

They did use the bird bath as a convenient ledge to rest on.

Sometimes they even decided to drink out of it.

Sometimes they even seemed to be scrying the future in its surface.

Even the squirrels were drinking from it…and using it as a jumping point onto my feeders whenever they were feeling particularly bouncy.

But no baths, or at least no baths while I was in the yard. Occasionally I would pull in the driveway and there was a bird looking wet and hopping out of the bird bath. But when I am in the yard, armed with my camera and ready for the water droplets to fall, nothing. Maybe they were shy. I don’t know.

Then one summer day, we had locked ourselves out of our house after an afternoon of grilling and sitting in the yard. I was frustrated with the situation and tired of standing over my husband as he tried to break in to our home, so I took my camera back out, turned my back on my problems and watched the feeders. Within minutes a Starling landed on the bird bath. At this point I had been two years with a bird bath and I knew better than to hope for an actual bath. But I figured if it perched long enough I might be able to get some interesting shots. And then it did the unexpected. It stepped off of the ledge, entered the water and actually bathed. A bird used my bird bath to take a bath! Amazing!

I was so shocked that my frustration with the locked door vanished. My husband didn’t seem to understand the monumental level of excitement about a bird taking a bath in a bird bath, so I left him to his task, feeling great satisfaction that after two years my investment had paid off. I settled back down to watch the feeders some more, assured that we would soon be back in the house, when a Catbird landed on the bird bath. And then he walked into the water. And took a bath.

It is really the little things in life. And the funny part is, if we hadn’t been locked out, I would have been inside cleaning up or something equally mundane and I never would have witnessed these two stupendous baths.

Carolina Wren

Their small size and general lack of interest in seeds and feeders makes spotting a Wren in the garden more than your run of the mill day in the yard. Not that I wish to imply that Wrens are uncommon. They are pretty common in yards, or at least their songs are. If you don’t know where to look and who you are looking for, spotting a Wren could be a bit of a challenge. Following their song is always a good place to start.

One of six wrens common to the Northeastern United States, the Carolina Wren is easily the most distinct. They are the same size as their fellow Wrens and have a similar body type, including a brown body and down-curved beak. However, what sets them apart is their distinct white eyebrows. Their chest is also brighter than other Wrens, starting white toward their heads and fading into yellow halfway down their chests.

Carolina Wrens prefer good cover in bushes or shrubs, but these songbirds can’t help themselves, they keep bursting into song. Each male sings between twenty-seven and forty-one songs and the males and females have been known to sing duets. The pair will mate and remain monogamous for an entire breeding season, having two broods. Due to their need for cover, they tend to look for natural cavities in which to create a nest.

While they will occasionally eat fruit or seeds, this is rare. Their primary diet is insects. This interest in bugs makes them a common ground hunter. Look for them around leaf piles and tree roots, poking around and searching for insects.

A Family of Wrens

Taking Requests

It is almost impossible for me to express in words how happy I was when a pair of House Wrens decided to take up residence in my goose gourd house this summer. After a few years with no permanent residents I was becoming a bit discouraged with this DIY project. Generally speaking, I am extra excited about any birds in my yard that are not regular patrons to my feeders. Wrens, being insect eaters, definitely fall into that category. Add to that their lovely song and their quick and tiny bodies, they are both a pleasure to have around and a bit of a challenge to spot and photograph.

Considering how happy I was that they moved in, I am sure it will not come as a surprise that I was absolutely over the moon ecstatic when their nestlings hatched. I know that eggs and nestlings are the inevitable product of a nest, but the whole thing was still magical.

From a safe distance I peeked into the gourd a few times, and got a glimpse of one beak, then two. However, in late June I decided to sit in the yard from a position where I would have a good view of the mouth of the house. It turns out they had quadruplets! Very, very loud and hungry quadruplets.

If you are interested in making a gourd bird house, there is tons of information out there. Here is a website with some basic instructions: https://www.diynetwork.com/how-to/outdoors/structures/how-to-make-a-gourd-bird-house Be warned, this is not a quick project. The gourd needs to totally dry out before you can make the house. I purchased my gourd in early Autumn and didn’t drill the hole until the following February/March.

A Day in the Backyard

A leisurely weekend morning spent in the garden with a book, a cup of tea and my trusty camera, ready for action. Many of my usual customers stopped by, including a pair of Cardinals, several Mourning Doves, House Finches and Goldfinches of both genders and a Catbird. A Brown-Headed Cowbird grabbed a quick snack at my feeder and a Northern Flicker rested on a branch for about a minute, but I wasn’t quick enough with my camera. A young Grackle even took a few drinks from the bird bath.

It is amazing that in just the span of a day or two the baby birds sticking their beaks through the hole of their birdhouse are suddenly up and out. The frantic and awkward flapping which at first glance appears to indicate an injury, is really the international bird body language for “I’m hungry.”

Today the baby House Sparrows that have been living in one of the birdhouses in our yard ventured out into the world. They didn’t venture very far, just a few branches above their home, hopping more than flying from branch to branch. They are still being fed directly by their parents, the adults’ beaks going right into the eager open mouths of the chicks. Their coloring is such that they could almost pass for an adult, if a bit smaller in stature when you have mom or dad right next to them for comparison. But when you look closely, the fluffy, downy feathers are still there.

The quiet, still morning air was constantly pierced with the shrills of much larger babies, the Blue Jays now have their babies out of the nest. I believe their cries rank among my least favorite sounds of the summer. As gawky as the most awkward teenage you can think of, Steve Urkel comes to mind, you could almost think they are so ugly that they are cute, but then they open their mouths and shrill again. The adult Blue Jays had all they could do to satisfy their bottomless-pit children. They came to my feeder, gulped down the food, shoved it down the babies’ throats, repeat. Suddenly breast feeding doesn’t seem that bad.

Mourning Dove

Despite my being relatively new to the hobby of bird watching, you might say birding generally is in my blood. Before I was born, my grandfather bred and raced pigeons. Despite not experiencing the pigeons first-hand, I have heard many stories and learned many details about pigeons throughout my life. As a result, I am very fond of pigeons, a bird so often written off and sometimes even referred to as winged-rats. I haven’t had a pigeon in my yard yet, which I must admit makes me a bit sad because I know they are in the neighborhood.

Given my fondness for pigeons, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I also like the Mourning Doves that visit my yard. Doves may appear a bit large and awkward as they waddle around, but the understated modesty of their fawn color and their size match their gentle demeanor. They are in fact very graceful in flight. And if you watch them closely in the right light, their feathers display an iridescent quality, so subtle it feels like a whispered secret. They also have the slightest hint of blue outlining their eyes which seems to imply there is more to them than you think at first glance.

The husky size of a Mourning Dove seems to make all the more sense when you learn that they eat almost 20% of their body fat, daily. They only eat grains, which is why they are a common visitor to feeders, including mine. However, again due to their larger physic, they are typically ground feeders, scrounging up the discarded seeds. A few times a dove has tried to land on one of my feeders, but their size and center of balance just won’t allow it. My current feeder pole has a round flat tray on one tier and the Dove’s seem to have claimed it as their own perch (better them than the squirrels).

Mourning Doves typically visit my feeders in groups, which is always guaranteed to add to the fun because inevitably one of the males decides to get his flirt on. Puffing up his chest and neck feathers, he begins chasing around one of the lady Doves, bobbing his head forward and back as he walks, in a very exaggerated manner. Pigeons have a similar behavior. I am not sure if they just like to play hard to get, but nine times out of ten the females run away, fly away and generally seem unimpressed.

Despite the evasive maneuvers I have witnessed, this behavior must impress the ladies eventually because Doves are fairly broody as birds go. While they only lay two eggs per nesting, they reproduce about three or four times a season. You may sometimes find a couple with more than two babies (squabs). This is the result of another Dove laying parasite eggs for a fellow Dove to raise.

Both of the parents share the responsibility of incubating and feeding the young. The babies are fed crop-milk which is even a bit more gross than it sounds. If you are interested, google it.

Mourning Doves are so common in North America they are commonly hunted. About 20 million are hunted annually. But have no fear, the population is not at risk. Besides being very fruitful in a breeding season, Mourning Doves also live a relatively long time, the oldest known Dove being 30 years old at the time of his demise.

Mourning Doves have the rare ability among birds to drink without lifting their heads