It was an ordinary sight and it almost escaped my notice: A brilliant red male cardinal crunched seeds in a hanging domed feeder while a number of brown birds hopped around on the ground below.
But something seemed unusual about those ground birds, so I trained my binoculars on them, revealing a very interesting sight: All five of them were cardinals themselves, but they were youngsters, and didn't have much of the telltale red feathering yet.
This was in early September, at the end of songbird breeding season, and it seems likely that the five youngsters were the adult male's offspring. In our region, cardinals can raise two broods in a season, and females tend to produce between two and five eggs each time. So, it seemed to me, a likely scenario was that the three youngsters that seemed older — with a bit of red in the crest and a hint on the wings — were from the first nest, and the two totally nondescript, brown birds were from the second.
The father bird probably had the two younger birds in tow, and was trying to model how to feed at a feeder. The birds from the earlier brood must have been around the backyard, noticed the activity and flown in to pick up some seeds dropped from the feeder.
The sight of those young cardinals under the feeder told me two things:
One, they had excellent parents, who successfully raised two batches of young. And two, they'd been lucky enough to evade the many animals that prey on eggs and young birds.
Cardinals do make standout parents, indicated by their ability to raise two broods of youngsters during our short summer season. When the first brood leaves the nest, the father bird takes on the care of these juveniles as they move around. It's a demanding job, with the male constantly rushing to keep up with (generally) three to four youngsters, all trying their wings and begging noisily for food from different locations.
The mother bird spends this time building her second nest, laying the next batch of eggs, then sitting on them for about 12 days, and doesn't have any time left over for fledgling duty.
In early October, a month later, I was still seeing young cardinals around my backyard, but never again gathered together in a group. The older birds, by mid-October, had molted more red feathers and their dark beaks were gaining a wash of bright red-orange color. The younger birds were still all brown with dark beaks. And interestingly, neither of the sets, the older youngsters or the younger ones, were using the bird feeders. Cardinals are instinctively ground feeders, until they learn that feeders offer a fast food hit, and these youngsters weren't yet ready to follow their father's lead.
The five youngsters probably won't be around my backyard this winter, since young cardinals eventually leave their parents' territory to find their own. This benefits the species in two ways, first by reducing the chance for inbreeding, and second, by spreading birds out so there's less competition for food and shelter.
It would be nice to think of them finding mates and raising their own broods next summer, but the odds are against it. The hard truth is that only one in four songbirds are alive to celebrate their first birthday.
This is the harsh reality that most songbirds face, and the reason they try to raise as many young as they can during the brief breeding season.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at email@example.com.
Low survival rate
What things kill young (and old) cardinals? The chief culprits are roaming cats, so anything you can do to make your backyard safer will help. Try putting fencing around birdbaths, if cats lurk nearby, and offer food only in feeders, not on the ground. Also, spray any free-range cats with a garden hose whenever you can.
Other mortality factors include flying into window glass, being snared by a bird-eating hawk, failing to find enough food and succumbing to winter nights.