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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Backyard Wildlife: Cardinals

The cardinals are back.  They’ve built a nest again this spring on the patio.  Last week both male and female spent a few days flying back and forth carrying strings and straw for the nest.  Now the nursery is ready, nestled inside a clay sconce on the back porch.   From the outside, the twigs appear to be in wild disarray, like a little boy’s hair when he wakes up.  But when you look inside, you see a perfectly sculpted hollow. 
I worry about these birds.  I’m sure they think they’ve found a good spot for raising babies.  After all, it’s sheltered from the wind and rain.  The nearby pond provides a steady source of water, which is crucial in these times of drought.  And the nest is safely off the ground where predators can’t get to it. 
But we have two dogs.  Mofo doesn’t care about chasing anything down, even things she can easily catch, like frogs.  But Cooper, the black and white blue heeler mix, is a different story.  Normally, she's the gentlest of dogs.  But when she’s on the hunt, she becomes relentless.  No matter that she’s 12 years old, which makes her seventy-something in people years, according to the chart in the vet’s office.  The prey instinct is still strong in her.  She’s always sniffing around rocks and bushes looking for something to maim or kill.  I worry not so much about the parent cardinals—they know to keep out of a dog’s way.  But I worry about the fledglings when they are learning to fly.  If one flutters to the ground even for a moment while Cooper is around, it is doomed. 
So far this has never happened.  For several years now the cardinals have made nests in our Mexican sconces.  One year instead they nested in the ficus tree on the patio (which, alas, may never hold another bird’s nest - see my blog “The Heirloom Ficus.”)  This made for fascinating birdwatching, because the ficus was right outside our bedroom window.  We could peek through the blinds and look right into the nest.  Often we were looking right into the eyes of the female cardinal as well.  She’d stare back indignantly as if asking, “Well?  What are you looking at?”
Now the female is spending a lot of time on the nest.  All you can see of her through the twigs is the flash of her orangey beak. One day soon the eggs will appear, and after that there will be naked hatchlings craning their scrawny necks.  Then there’s the cute fuzzy stage.  Then one day they are simply gone.  Just like that.  We never see them take the leap from the nest, no matter how vigilant we are.  From my meager research, I’ve learned that baby birds often need a few test flights before they can actually fly away.  They land on the ground and hunker down under a bush or tree, while the parents hover nearby and keep away any dangers as best they can. 
But I’ve never seen this stage with our baby cardinals.  They are speedy indeed with the flight program.  There they are, fat and sassy in the nest, and the next time we look, they have disappeared.  I know Cooper hasn’t gotten them, or we’d find their little feathered carcasses wherever she discarded them.  (She likes to kill her prey, not eat it).  Happily, so far they’ve made a successful getaway.  Still, I worry.  
P.S.  I just went outside to take pictures, and there are two perfect little eggs in the nest!

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