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Where are the cardinals?!! December 13, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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We’ve been having an unusually cold winter so far here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. Nights have been in the teens for weeks, causing both of us to shudder as we hear the furnace running all night, despite the thermostat being turned down to a warm and welcoming 50 degrees F. (It’s supposedly burning fuel oil, but it might as well be burning money as far as we’re concerned.) Given the extreme early cold, you’d expect—at least, we’d expect—an unusually large number of birds at our feeders.

So far, that hasn’t proven to be the case. We have a nice flock of chickadees and titmice, a pair of white-breasted nuthatches, a large flock of sparrows, our resident goldfinches in their drab winter disguise, a few house finches, a pair of juncos, red-bellied, downy, and hairy woodpeckers, a bluejay, and a lone pair of cardinals. Normally, we’d have a large flock of juncos (one of our favorite birds), maybe four bluejays, more house and purple finches, and about ten cardinals. Where are they?!

Not that the feeders aren’t emptying quickly enough, mostly thanks to a large contingent of the fattest squirrels in Pennsylvania. Our friend Ben read in today’s paper that squirrel season starts today, and God knows, ours would make some mighty fine eating. (Burgoo, anyone?)

Their appetites would be aggravating enough, but the miserable marauders are trying to eat our feeders along with our birdseed. I wonder if spraying the outsides of the feeders with the “Phooey!” spray we use to keep our black German shepherd, Shiloh, from consuming our rugs and woodwork would prove to be a squirrel deterrent? Hmmm. 

But I digress. Has anyone else noticed a dearth of birds at the feeders, or the absence or scarcity of some regular visitors? If so, please tell us what’s happening at your feeders!

A perfect pairing. May 1, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Some color pairings might not strike us at first blush as being ideal, or even desirable, but then you see them in nature and realize that they have a lot more to offer than you thought. This morning, as I looked out the kitchen windows, I saw two brilliant red cardinals in our blooming redbud tree: two bright red splotches against a soft sea of red-violet (or perhaps mauve might be closer to a redbud flower’s color). The contrast of form and color was lovely. I immediately thought of brilliant red tulips rising from a sea of red-violet (um, mauve?) creeping phlox. It’s actually a better combination than bright red against white, yellow, or blue (and certainly pink!)—all too contrasty. To soften it without lessening the impact, warm shades of orange tulips could be mixed in with the red. Nice!

           ‘Til next time,


A collection of cardinals. February 1, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood would just like to boast a bit about the large flock of cardinals, including six brilliant red males, that appeared at our cabin feeder yesterday afternoon. Of course, we always have cardinals at our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, located in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. But six males at once! This is a first for us. Backlit by the snow, they looked like they were posing in hopes that a famous nature photographer would happen by. (No such luck. Our friend Ben and Silence are both photographically challenged.)

After speculating about whether these cardinals had finally come far enough south to reach our property, or had migrated back to their northern breeding grounds with the lengthening days, our friend Ben had a rush of brains to the head (in the immortal words of a friend’s mother) and picked up the phone. Fortunately, I caught our expert birding friend, Rudy, just before he raced out the door for an annual hawk count.

Turns out that these cardinals are actually local residents. “When there’s snow and ice and it’s bitterly cold, cardinals have trouble finding food,” Rudy told me. “So they leave their usual territories and band together to look for sources of food like people’s feeders.” Wow, what a great reason to keep those feeders filled!

Cardinals aren’t too fond of tube feeders, preferring to feed on the ground or on a wide ledge like the ones on cabin-style feeders (also called hopper feeders for reasons unknown to our friend Ben; they look just like little cabins to me). We see them on the ground beneath our tube feeders, which we keep filled with black-oil sunflower seed, a favorite of many kinds of birds,* and both on our cabin feeder and on the ground beneath it, as well as perched in surrounding shrubs waiting their turn. Unlike the tube feeders, we keep the cabin feeder filled with a wild bird seed mix.  

But wait, you say: Don’t cardinals prefer safflower seed? In a word: no. But unlike most birds, cardinals will eat safflower seed when nothing better’s on offer, which is why people sell bags of safflower seed or a safflower/sunflower mix as “cardinal’s delight.” I suppose the idea is to deter other birds and encourage cardinals, but our friend Ben says forget that. Choose a good all-purpose wild bird mix that will attract an abundance of cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, wrens, sparrows, doves, bluejays, woodpeckers, juncos,  and other feeder favorites. Then sit back and enjoy the show!

While I had him on the phone, our friend Ben had another cardinal-related question for Rudy. I always think of male cardinals as a deep red. But the males in this flock, and many others I’ve seen this past year, are a brilliant red that actually looks fluorescent. It of course occurred to our friend Ben that this might be an effect of their snow-white backdrop, but there was a little problem with this hypothesis: They’d also looked fluorescent when there wasn’t any snow. Was this a mutation that had occurred as cardinals began establishing their year-round territories farther and farther north?

Again, the answer was no. Rudy explained that cardinals moult in late summer or early fall, so I had been seeing them in their immaculate new plumage. As spring turns to summer, their feathers become worn and lose their brilliance, so they look darker and duller red. Oh. Thanks, Rudy, for once again straightening our friend Ben out.

So that’s our cardinal story. What’s yours?

* Yes, our friend Ben realizes that it’s grammatically correct to say “kinds of bird,” not “birds,” but it sounds awkward so I’m not doin’ it.

Chipmunk vs. Cardinals June 10, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening.
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In “Sweet Home Pennsylvania,” our friend Ben noted seeing a chipmunk descending the trunk of a tree just off our deck, and watching said chipmunk being pursued, once it touched ground, by an outraged male cardinal. In this one vignette, our friend Ben learned two things I hadn’t known: 1. Chipmunks can climb trees! and 2. Cardinals chase chipmunks! Usually, the chipmunks around here hang out in the rock walls, and the only things that ever seem to notice them are the cats.

We had dinner with our birding friend Rudy on Sunday, and I described the incident. “Oh, yes,” he said, not the least surprised. “Chipmunks are nest-robbers, always after eggs. Birds hate them.” Who’d’a thunk it?!! And here our friend Ben thought chipmunks ate seeds and nuts. Now I’ve learned a third thing I didn’t know!

Reminds me of the time I saw a groundhog (aka woodchuck) sitting in a mimosa tree at our family home outside Nashville. (Groundhogs climb trees?!!) At the time I was simply dumbfounded to see it up there, but now, of course, I wonder what it was after. I’d have thought maybe the nectar of the mimosa flowers, or maybe the young green seedpods. Or maybe, like me, it just liked sitting in trees. (Even our cocker/springer spaniel mix used to occasionally join the youthful Ben in the old redbud where I liked to sit and read. But needless to say, it was a short, easy climb to my perch.)

Our friend Ben has always liked chipmunks. They’re cute and entertaining, and they’ve never eaten my bulbs or any other garden plant around here. But I don’t like the idea of their making a meal out of cardinal eggs. Go, cardinals, go!!!

Stupid cardinals. May 21, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, pets.
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Silence Dogood here. Don’t get me wrong, here at Hawk’s Haven, we love cardinals. Our friend Ben, who loves red more than most things, is especially fond of the brilliantly colored birds. And we have quite a collection of them on our rural Pennsylvania property. Maybe that’s the problem, or maybe it’s a spring courtship hormone surge. But drat those dumb male cardinals. Geez!

Here’s how it goes: I’m here at the computer, frantically working (sometimes I wonder if there’s any other way to work). BOOM!!! As I jump out of my skin, I realize that yet another male cardinal has charged one of the office windows after seeing his reflection in the glass. God forbid that that disturbingly familiar-looking male in the window should feel that he can get away with invading the idiot’s territory. So… BOOM! BOOM!!!

But that’s just the beginning. Electrified by the booming, our cat, Layla, throws herself against the glass from the inside, trying to capture the bird who’s stupidly flying, or so she thinks, right into her waiting paws. CRASH!!!


By now, I’m about at my last nerve. But the full horror of the situation is still to come. You see, our office windows are absolutely full of plants—beautiful foliage begonias, Easter and Christmas cacti, African violets. So with each lunge, Layla has the potential to bring plants crashing down, or at least rip leaves and stems. Worse yet, her dim but adorable and enormous brother, Linus, eventually decides that she’s having far too much fun and he wants to join in, so he hauls himself up onto the desk—the earth shakes—and tries to hurl himself against the window, too. (By this time, the cardinal is long gone, but I figure Linus never knew what the point was to begin with, so he doesn’t care.)


Grrrrrrrrrr. Stupid cardinals!

                ‘Til next time,