The Life of a Cardinal

Disclaimer: This is another post about yard birds. And the yard birds in question are cardinals.

NOCA on nest.JPG

Mama Pam

Our yard has a Northern Cardinal nest in the bushes along the edge of our back yard. The kids enjoy watching the pair, named Jim and Pam (as are all male and female cardinals anywhere, respectively). Even Alice, who is 21 months old, can proclaim “Jim!” when the male lands on the bird bath.

These birds have had a hell of a time in the month we have lived with them. It all started with the grosbeaks, who were here for three days but fiercely bullied all comers away from the feeders. This was good news with regard to our House Sparrows (who also have a colony of two nests on our front porch that have blown down three times between them), but it seriously strained the abilities of our Jim and Pam.


House Wren

Throw in a House Wren (unnamed) whose territory seems to overlap entirely with that of the cardinals and will chase away any and all birds who get too close to him, and you have quite the stressful situation.

NOCA nestlings

Cardinal Nest

To top it all off, in investigating the nest while the parents were both away I noticed that one of their dear brood seems to be a cowbird. The young’un in the back of the nest may be decrying this, or it may just be begging for another helping of arthropod. In any case, Jim and Pam are raising a child of their own as well as a foster child in this hellacious suburban wildlife environment, and they are dealing with it admirably…


Oh snap.

While at the neighborhood park this past weekend, Jaime, the kids, and I discovered three raccoon babies all doing various raccoon-y things in different corners of the park. For the first time, I broke into the “animals are wild, they aren’t pets like Emma the Dog, etc, etc.” speech with Walter. This seemed to go over well. Until the next evening when one of them showed up in the cedar trees alongside our house. The kids lost their minds.

We tried to restrain Walter and Alice from running up to the raccoon while simultaneously encouraging them to observe the wildlife. Then it dawned on me what the little beast was really up to. A red blur flashed into the cedars at the same instant.

Raccoon and NOCA 1

Jim the Cardinal sizes up the threat

Jim had exactly the same thought as I did. He zoomed in from out of nowhere to let the raccoon (bottom right) know that he was there (top left). Jim stood his ground for a few moments, trying to decide how much the raccoon actually knew.


Secret Nest Location

This photo is immediately to the right of the one above it. The cardinal nest is midway up the vegetation directly in front of the utility pole. For a minute, it seemed like the clumsy young raccoon was just going to blunder into traffic, and it actually fell out of the cedar tree and landed on its head. But then it did a 180 and headed right for the bushes.

Raccpon and NOCA 2

The action builds

At this point, it was obvious that the raccoon knew there was something good to be had, but it couldn’t quite figure out where. This is when Jim really sprang into action. He flew down to the raccoon’s level and unleashed a devastating series of “chip chip chips” in its general direction. For a moment I thought he might go full Killdeer and feign injury to draw the predator away, but he was honest about his status as defender of the nest, and with erect crest he continued to hop around issuing warning calls.

Raccoon and NOCA 3

The plan is working

The plan worked to perfection. The raccoon became much more interested in the bright red thingy making noise, and it followed Jim far into the neighboring yard and out of sight. It did not come back.

Jim and Pam meanwhile earned a well-deserved break, and within minutes of the all clear they were both leisurely eating back at the feeders.


Gray Catbird

Or least they were until the catbirds ran them off. What a life to be a cardinal in this day and age.

Take a Walk

I took a walk with my camera today, not really intending to do any serious birding.


Blue-gray Gnatcatcher fledgling

Foster Park’s resident Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were successful in their nesting attempts this year. Here, an individual waits for its angry black unibrow to grow in.


Blue-gray Gnatcatcher fledgling

I have always found these birds some of the most maddening to try and take a picture of. But the job was made easy by tons of fledglings sitting around on branches, begging to be fed. Also: if you thought the sound of a calling adult Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was comical, the sounds of a begging juvenile BGGN are so much more so.


White-breasted Nuthatch fledgling

Nuthatches were also having babies.


Gray Catbird fledgling

So were the catbirds.



I have almost tripped over the sheer number of baby groundhogs that call the riverbank and trails home, but they were not out today. This adult was not amused.


Hackberry Emperor

Making a solid claim to being the oldest animal at the park was this heavily worn and seriously faded Hackberry Emperor. So much life experience for one tiny invertebrate. I have to wonder what the chances are for any individual butterfly to actually get to this point. One in a million seems way too large.

Robin Imposters in the Yard

For the uninitiated, this is what an American Robin looks like:

American Robin

American Robin

They are intrinsically very cool birds, and one of a very few species with bold orange going on. They are also voracious predators. But people don’t tend to think much of them because they are so common. However, they must have something enviable about them, because this morning we had three new yard birds who were all doing their best to act like the humble American Robin, Turdus migratorius.

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

There are many, many birds that I would have expected in the yard before a crippling male Scarlet Tanager. And I would have missed out on this guy entirely had he not been doing his Robin impression. Laying in bed, I heard a weird call outside of our bedroom window. At first I didn’t think anything of it. Then I thought how much like a sick Robin it sounded. And it hit me: every field guide I have ever read describes the song of the Scarlet Tanager as “an American Robin with a cold.” That description is dead on. I opened the blinds to see this bird flying away down the street. I ran out of the front door in my pajamas and mercilessly photographed this stunning red gent.

Swainson's Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush

As I was uploading the Tanager photos to Facebook to try and win over friends to the dark side show how cool birding can be, I saw another weird Robin running around in the back yard with a few others. Quickly lifting the binoculars, it resolved itself to be a Swainson’s Thrush acting like it was some kind of common feeder bird! Swainsons are forest birds, and I have never seen one in broad daylight, let alone a suburban lawn underneath a bird feeder. But that’s exactly where this one was. Isn’t spring migration great?

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

The final imposter wasn’t exactly doing a Robin impression, but this Gray Catbird very well could have mimicked the song as it freeloaded in our bird bath. In any case, this was the third new yard bird for the morning, and I would have expected him much sooner than the first two.

I try not to write “these are some birds that I saw in my yard” posts very often unless there is nothing else going on. But with the above birds I hope you didn’t mind bearing with me, although no “these are some birds that I saw in my yard” post is complete without one more:

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

Sorry, I had to do it.

Birding Holliday Park

Now that I am done with school (forever!), I will hopefully be birding more frequently. I even bought a new Nikon Coolpix L810 to replace my dead Canon especially for the cause. For my inaugural post-master’s bird hike, this morning I ventured to Holliday Park, which is a large city park with hiking trails and cool ruins that is only about two miles from home. I made a good decision, because I identified 28 species and heard and saw probably a dozen others that I couldn’t pin down. I also managed to get some good photos from the brand new camera.

The first interesting bird of the day was a bright red streak that I saw dart below a shrub off to my right almost directly inside of the entrance gate. I made a mental note of “Cardinal” and instead turned my attention to whatever small unidentifiable bird was singing from a treetop overhead, with the hope that it would be some kind of new Warbler. It eventually left me without a positive ID, so I continued down the path, only to see the Cardinal again. I figured I might as well try to get a picture since it was posing for me so nicely in a locust tree up ahead. As I zoomed in, I realized that it did not have a black mask, it did not have a crest, and it had a thin yellow beak, which made it a Summer Tanager, not a Northern Cardinal.

Summer Tanager

Summer Tanager

This was really exciting for a few reasons. First, these birds are relatively uncommon, usually preferring to fly around woodland treetops eating bees, and central Indiana is in the extreme northern extent of their range. Second, I had never seen one before. Third, despite never seeing one, I knew exactly what it was and didn’t have to look to see if it was a Summer or a Scarlet Tanager, which made me proud of my birding skills.

The only other bird that exciting for me was the enormous Pileated Woodpecker that flew down and perched in a small tree about 30 feet from me. I scrambled for my camera, took one blurry picture, then was told I was “out of memory.” After deleting a few pictures of more common birds to make room, the Pileated flew away, of course.

Some birds I did get pictures of include these Canada Geese on the White River:

Canada Goose

Canada Goose

This Gray Catbird yodeling from the top of a tree:

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

An Eastern Bluebird towards the middle of the lawn:

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

And these three Brown-Headed Cowbirds out of about 17 billion in the park that day:

Brown-Headed Cowbird

Brown-Headed Cowbird

My full count for the day, in order of appearance, included:
1.) American Robin
2.) Eastern Wood Pewee
3.) Red-Bellied Woodpecker
4.) Brown-Headed Cowbird
5.) White-Breasted Nuthatch
6.) White-Throated Sparrow (vocalization only)
7.) Chipping Sparrow
8.) Tufted Titmouse
9.) American Goldfinch
10.) Mallard
11.) Gray Catbird
12.) Northern Cardinal
13.) Summer Tanager (lifer!)
14.) Common Grackle
15.) House Sparrow
16.) Downy Woodpecker
17.) Eastern Bluebird
18.) Mourning Dove (vocalization only)
19.) Song Sparrow
20.) Canada Goose
21.) Carolina Wren
22.) Blue Jay (vocalization only)
23.) Pileated Woodpecker
24.) Ruby-Throated Hummingbird
25.) Carolina Chickadee
26.) House Finch
27.) Turkey Vulture
28.) European Starling