One evening a few weeks ago I filled the front-yard birdfeeder, which had sat empty several days while I didn’t quite get around to fixing it. I put the feed scoop away in the shed, and by the time I had walked the hundred yards there and back to the front porch, a female cardinal had found the fresh seed. After eating a few morsels she sat and chirped — crowing over her prize? But the chirping was short and came at intervals, and in half a minute another cardinal arrived, and the first flew off into a bush at the side of the house. This second cardinal was a juvenile, its feathers gray but tinged with red and a bit rough as they are when they molt their first summer, halfway from fledgling camouflage to male plumage. While he ate, the first bird, perched in the bush a few yards from me, continued her rhythmic chirping another minute before she flew into the woods. Then a second juvenile male, who had been perched near the feeder, took his turn, and the first flew away.
There is so much chaos and competition at the birdfeeder that it took me a few minutes to recognize what was going on. The first bird was the mother, chirping to alert her fledged but still not-quite independent boys that the feeder had been filled — and then continuing the alarm to remind them to get to the safety of the woods when they were finished eating. Time for dinner, finish your homework, and don’t forget to buckle up. I’m not sure I would have expected cardinals to parent that actively for that long, but then I’m not sure I’d thought about it. The orderly taking of turns, too, surprised me — if they were going to cooperate, there are two sides to the feeder; why not each one take a side? Is sibling rivalry a dry run for competition over mates and territory?
While I was contemplating all this, a neighbor started shooting off his gun, and that was the end of Happy Front Yard Nature Time. But consider the silver lining: if my hominid neighbors were more impressive, I might not feel the need to make the yard a wildlife habitat. It’s all in how you look at things.