Feeder dynamics

Northern Cardinal with Black-capped Chickadee and American Tree Sparrow

Our cardinal from last winter has returned to us, after having spent the summer holding a territory in the neighbour’s backyard just down the road a short distance. When he arrived a month ago he was alone, but a week or two later a female showed up, and has periodically joined him at the feeders. I presume she’s his mate from the summer; cardinals remain paired up even through the winter months. I was glad to see he’d found one; being the only cardinal for, seemingly, kilometers, I was worried that no girl would find him.

I find it interesting to watch the pecking order among the various species that come to visit our feeders in the winter. Sometimes there are some surprising bullies, and sometimes only some individuals of a species are pushy. Cardinals go both ways, it seems. This afternoon I noticed the male foraging on the snow under the feeder. He would, for the most part, ignore all the little birds who hopped around him – the chickadees, tree sparrows and juncos. But as soon as one of the Blue Jays landed nearby…

Northern Cardinal threatening Blue Jay

He’d push his head down…

Northern Cardinal chasing off Blue Jay

Puff up his feathers, spread his tail and wings…

Northern Cardinal

And chase it off. Blue Jays are a shade larger than cardinals, but cardinals have the more powerful beak. Does the jay know that, do you think? Because jays themselves are usually pretty bossy. Interestingly, the Birds of North America species account notes antagonistic interactions at feeders with House, Field, Harris’ and White-throated Sparrows, but doesn’t mention other species.

In parts of the country where cardinals are abundant (which isn’t here), they may group together in flocks of a few individuals up to several dozen, and while individual distance is maintained within the flock, they do move together (described as a “tank-tread like” movement as birds at the back of the flock leapfrog to the front). The BNA account also states that these flocks can sometimes be associated with other species, including juncos, White-throated Sparrows, titmice, tree sparrows, goldfinches and towhees. Perhaps that’s why it differentiated between the chickadees and tree sparrows, and the Blue Jays?

And, not related to anything, I love that you can see the red reflected on the snow under his tail in the middle photo.


One letter different

Cardinal at Jeep mirror as seen through lilac bush in winter

This afternoon, Dan called me to the window to point out the cardinal. He was hanging on to the side of Dan’s Jeep, checking itself out in the reflection of the side mirror. I grabbed my camera and tried for a few shots, but unfortunately there’s a very large lilac bush between the house and the cars. The birds are loving it for perching in when coming to visit the feeder, and it will be tremendously lovely in the spring when it blooms, but it did make it difficult to get a good view of the cardinal. This was the best shot I could manage, and you almost need to know what’s going on to be able to pick out the details in the photo. Oh well. Can’t win them all. I was mostly interested in documenting it because it’s the first time I’ve personally witnessed this behaviour, which is actually rather common in cardinals. It’s a territorial thing, they think they’re attacking an intruder. Since cardinals hold their territories year round, the behaviour can be observed in the winter as well as the summer.

What’s the difference between a cardinal and a carnival? A single line that turns a sideways-v into a d.

Okay, I’m sorry about that. But I had to draw a connection somehow, didn’t I?

Two carnivals up recently that are worth checking out. The first is I And The Bird #115, being hosted this edition by Jason of Xenogere. Jason adopts and adapts “original and unadulterated Thoreau” to share the links for this carnival. Curious what the heck that means? You’ll have to go check it out!

And the second is the inaugural edition of House of Herps, which coincidentally happens to be the brainchild of Jason, as well, in partnership with Amber of Birder’s Lounge. This fine first edition gifts us with much great herpetological reading, so make sure you swing by to pick up your presents!

All dressed in red

Northern Cardinal

For the past month or so now we’ve been graced with the presence of a bright male Northern Cardinal at our feeders. Dan spotted it first, and I happened to be on the phone at the time. He was gesturing for me to look out the window, but the cord wasn’t long enough for me to see the feeder, and I couldn’t tell what he had spotted. When I got off a couple of minutes later, I came over to see what he was looking at. I was just as excited as he was to see the bird.

It’s funny to think of being excited over a cardinal, when back in the Greater Toronto area where I spent the first 28 years of my life they were a very common bird, and one of the first that a country girl learns to identify at the family’s feeders. Their distinctive metallic chink call is commonly heard in the shrubs while out walking. They’re regularly encountered in urban subdivisions, and they’re one of the first birds to be heard singing in late winter (or sometimes even mid-winter, for a particularly enthusiastic individual).

But out here in eastern Ontario, cardinals are a bit of a novelty. Since moving away from Toronto I have encountered a total of three individuals (not including ones I’ve seen on trips back to the Big City). We had two females (or maybe the same one on two separate occasions) visit us last winter at the lake house. And now this winter we have this lone male coming to our feeders.

Northern Cardinal map from Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas

This map was borrowed from the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas’ website (which allows you to use the data there for non-commercial purposes with attribution). It shows the combined data from the 1981-85 and 2001-05 Atlases. Squares where the species was recorded in the most recent Atlas are coloured in according to the highest level of breeding evidence obtained in that square. If the species was recorded in both Atlases, there is no dot; however, if it was new for the 2001-2005 Atlas there is a yellow dot, and if the species was recorded in a square in the first Atlas but not found in the second, there is a black dot on a white square.

As you can see, there are a lot of yellow dots. They’re mostly along the northern edge of the bird’s range: the Bruce Peninsula and Manitoulin Island, along the north shore of Georgian Bay, across the southern edge of the Shield, and through much of eastern Ontario. I’m sure this represents a statistically significant shift in range boundaries, and although I recall seeing the data at some point when I was working on the publication staff for the Atlas, I don’t seem to see it in the book.

The author of the Northern Cardinal account does note, however, that the northern boundary of the Northern Cardinal’s range is approximately the same as the isotherm (the imaginary line connecting the dots of different places with the same temperature data) for the January mean minimum temperature of -16°C (3°F). That suggests that the coldest cardinals are able to tolerate is an average January overnight temperature of -16. In places where the average is colder, you’re not going to find many, if any, cardinals.

Northern Cardinal

Now, cardinals haven’t become any more cold-tolerant in the last twenty years. Rather, the isotherm has shifted north and east as global temperatures warm fractionally. Combined with the abundance of birdfeeders that are now commonplace across much of North America, the cardinal has expanded its range dramatically over the last century. The very first record of the species in Ontario wasn’t until 1849, and the first recorded nest wasn’t found until 1901 at Point Pelee in far southwestern Ontario. It didn’t take very long for the bird to spread, however. By 1915 it was recorded nesting in London, in Brantford by 1919, and in Toronto by 1922 (marked on the map above by green dots and the first letter of the city’s name). That’s pretty quick progression!

Northern Cardinal

Of course, a nest record doesn’t make the bird common, and it’s too bad that the atlas doesn’t offer the abundance maps online. Though the bird was found in Ottawa even by the last atlas, its numbers are pretty low outside of southwestern Ontario. Its areas of greatest abundance remain the relatively warmer areas around Windsor, the Golden Horseshoe (from Niagara wrapping around Lake Ontario to Toronto) and surrounding cities, and an more isolated patch near Ottawa. Cities tend to have warmer temperatures than the rural landscape surrounding them, and they also have a higher density of birdfeeders, which means that overwinter survival is easier for the birds. In these population centres, abundances as recorded through point count surveys suggested some areas may have as many as 17+ birds per 25 point counts (each 10km x 10km square [approx 6mi x 6mi] contained 25 counts on average, scattered randomly). So essentially, stop anywhere in these regions and there’s a nearly 70% chance you’ll hear a cardinal.

Northern Cardinal

Getting back to our cardinal. Our region recorded between 0.01 and 2 birds per 25 point counts – the lowest the scale goes before you get to zero birds per 25. That means that there’s a less than 8% chance that at any given stop you’re likely to hear a cardinal. They’re around, sure – but not very common at all. Our particular area seems to be near the zero end of that range. Our home is close to the corners of four squares; of the 84 total point counts completed in those four squares, a cardinal was recorded on only one. Two of the four squares never saw a cardinal at all, on point count or off.

This probably relates, once again, to the harshness of the winters along the edge of the Shield and surrounding areas, and the relative paucity of feeders compared to in the city. I admit I haven’t been scoping out the neighbours’ yards, but nobody has a big feeder array prominently displayed at the front of their house, in any case. With the number of birds who spend the day here I wouldn’t be surprised if we were the only home with feeders in our immediate vicinity.

Northern Cardinal

So I’m glad the cardinal found us – he might be the only one for kilometers. Perhaps he’s a young bird dispersing from a nest some distance away, which would explain why he’s not accompanied by a female, since cardinal pairs usually (though not always) remain together year-round. The other possibilities might be that his mate died, or he’s among the small percentage of birds who dissolve the pair bond over the winter. There’s no way to determine his age at this point – by late fall male cardinals have acquired their bright orange beaks and red plumage, having grown a completely new set of feathers from the ones he grew in the nest (relatively unusual among songbirds, the majority of whom replace body but not flight feathers in their first fall).

He sure brightens up the feeders when he arrives!

Birds on the rail line


A couple years ago (has it been that long already?) I did some bird surveys for the City of Toronto as part of an assessment and preliminary monitoring scheme for a park in the Don Valley. They’ve recently contacted me again, looking to see whether I would be available to do another set for a different site. They’re just looking for an inventory of the bird species found using the site, which doesn’t require lengthy or involved surveys, so I said I’d take them on. I’m just going to be doing area searches, once a week, from now through June, to get a basic idea of what can be found there.

Today I met the woman from the City who I’ve been corresponding about it with, at the actual site. The site is located in the southern Don Valley, only about a five minute drive from my home. I’m surprised not to have known about it, but I don’t drive that way ever. It’s actually a capped and regenerating landfill, a couple decades old, now used as a natural area for outdoor recreation. We walked into it briefly and scoped it out. She answered a few of my questions, I answered a few of hers. We didn’t spend too long there; since it’s not a very complicated project, there wasn’t a lot to be worked out. Once we wrapped up there, I grabbed my camera gear and walked back in, along a different trail, to see what I could see.

I happened across these train tracks. They obviously hadn’t been used in some time; the rails were all rusty, and there were plants growing up between the ties, right next to the steel. I decided to wander along their length a short ways; it had the advantage of not being used by the many other park users, and I had no worry about a train coming along to flatten me.

American Redstart and Yellow Warbler

Especially in the city, rail lines make really great green corridors by which wildlife can move from one area to another. Very rarely does the city come right up to their edge, usually there’s a green buffer of trees and other vegetation that borders each side of the tracks. Although it wasn’t the case here, oftentimes that’s the largest contiguous stretch of habitat within a neighbourhood. As a result, it usually has lots of creatures living in it.

One of the first birds I noticed upon stepping out on the tracks was a male American Redstart. He was singing his heart out from a Manitoba Maple that overhung the ditch on the other side of the rails. Although redstarts can have somewhat variable songs, their most characteristic and distinctive songs is a slightly rising warble ended with a downward buzzy-ish note sounding something like a sneeze.

American Redstart

I started pishing to try to call them forward to the front of the tree. Pishing is a birder’s term used in reference to a sound rather like “pishpishpishpishpish”, said very rapidly. Many birds will become curious or agitated by the sound and come in to check it out. The theory is that it resembles the distress call of another species, in particular the Tufted Titmouse. When members of the tit family start giving their alarm calls like this, it’s usually a call to other species to come help – “Danger! Here! Mob it, mob it!” If you can sound sufficiently like an alarmed titmouse, you should be able to create the same reaction. Sometimes the birds ignore you entirely, but in this case it was quite effective. At one point (captured here), the redstart actually swooped down low over my head, either searching for, or mobbing, the source of the sound.

Male redstarts take a couple years to get this nice crisp black-and-orange plumage. In their first summer as an adult they still sport the brown-and-peach colouration of the females, although it’s often mottled black, especially around the face. That fall, when they go through their complete moult, they’ll replace all their drab feathers with striking black ones. This delayed mature plumage fits into the dominence hierarchy; black males almost always get to mate, brown males only if there aren’t enough black males to go around. Not that that stops them. Brown males will float between the territories of black males, and when the older one’s got his back turned, the younger one will usually slip in for a quick fling with the missus. The females have no problem with this; the more males she mates with, the better her chances of having mated with a genetically superior male. This guy probably wasn’t going to stick around to breed, though – although they do nest in the Greater Toronto Area, he was probably heading further north to better habitat.

Yellow Warblers

There were a couple of Yellow Warblers hanging out in the same tree as the redstart, checking me out as I pished at them (you can see one with the redstart in the earlier photo). It appeared to be a male and an older female (differentiated from younger females by the brightness of her yellow plumage), but could have been two males. Yellow Warblers might be the most common warbler in the Don Valley, and probably much of southern Ontario. They’re usually found in riparian areas, in the scrubby vegetation that lines stream and wetland edges, but can occasionally be found in other habitats, as long as they’re similarly shrubby. It was a bit odd to see the pair at the rail tracks, since there didn’t appear to be water immediately nearby, but I will admit I didn’t know what was on the other side of the berm bordering the north side of the tracks.

Northern Cardinal

Mrs. Cardinal came out and gave me a good look just to make sure the fuss wasn’t anything worth getting too upset about.

Northern Cardinal

Mr. Cardinal did the same, but hung back in the vine tangles. Neither of them stuck around long once they determined that it wasn’t actually a titmouse getting worked up over an owl or something. The tangled thicket they were hanging out in was a good place for a cardinal nest, but I didn’t actually climb up to check the area out. Cardinals actually used to be fairly scarce through this area, some decades ago, but are now a dime a dozen. The reason for their expansion is usually credited jointly to the increasing popularity of bird feeders along with gradually warming average temperatures. It’s been observed that as the temperature isotherm for the January mean minimum temperature of minus 16 C moves north, so does their range. Their northern range limit is now more restricted by availability of their preferred habitat than by temperature.

Gray Catbird

A catbird was singing from a patch of sumac along the edge of the tracks, and stopped to come check me out as I pished. Catbirds take their name from the sound they make when alarmed – which sounds rather like the nasal mew of a cat. They’re a member of the family Mimidae, the mimics. Along with the Northern Mockingbird and Brown Thrasher, the Gray Catbird will pick up sounds from its environment and work them into its song repertoire. A single catbird may have dozens of different phrases. Male and female catbirds look the same; rather than looking at flashy plumage to choose a mate, female catbirds prefer males with larger, more complex repertoires, which presumably indicates greater intelligence and stronger genes.

There were also other birds along the corridor: a few American Goldfinches, an American Robin, a Baltimore Oriole, a Warbling Vireo… These guys weren’t as obliging for a photo, tending to remain higher up in the treetops, hidden behind leaves and out of the reach of my camera. There were many other bird species in the rest of the park, as well, but even just in this small stretch of train tracks I was pleased with the diversity I found.

Solitude in the heart of the city


This morning I got up early, leaving Blackburnian still asleep in bed, and slipped out the door with my camera and sketchbook to go to one of my favourite spots in the city. Unlike the Rouge, this area is just a short drive, perhaps ten minutes along in-town roads, located in a section of the Don River valley. I discovered it a couple of years ago, when I was hired by the city to do a report for them on one of their properties. This was the area I chose to use as a control site during my study. I chose it initially because it was un-groomed, natural and wild, and over the course of the next several months I really fell in love with the location.

It’s accessed from a small park and playground, through a short, narrow mini-ravine that runs between two rows of houses. The trails are used almost exclusively by the local residents for jogging and dog-walking. I encountered very few people on the trails during my surveys. This morning, in the hour and a half I’m there, I meet no one. This is one of the things I love about the place; it’s quiet, peaceful, relatively undisturbed, and you can almost forget you’re in the heart of the city.


Halfway down the entry trail I notice these snowballs. The sides of the mini-ravine here are steep, and evidently something, perhaps a fallen twig or bit of bark, began sliding down the side of the slope, gathering snow about it as it went. It’s not the typical snowball you see when snow rolls down a hill, and I have to assume that the object slid rather than rolled, and spun as it did so to create these neat doughnut shapes.

Trail with city as backdrop

The entry trail meets up with the main network, and I turn to follow it to the north. It runs along the base of another set of homes. I think how magnificent the view from their back porches must be, and then I think they must command a real premium on house price for such a location. Indeed, most ravine-backing homes are way out of my price range in the city, usually starting at $500-600k for the small run-down places, and going up to well over a million for the really nice ones. Toronto is a wealthy city. It has to be, in order for so many people to live here, with property prices being what they are. In the neighbourhood where we rent you’re lucky to find anything in good shape for less than $300k. I couldn’t afford to buy here on my own. Even Blackburnian and I together would be hard-pressed to find something we could afford jointly. Who are these people, making all this money?

I turn west down a small side trail, and am afforded my only real view of the city as a backdrop to the park, with a few tall apartment buildings towering over the treetops, at the far side of the Don. A short distance down the trail and the city melts back into the trees, hidden from view, and forgotten, for the moment.

Don River valley

The side trail comes out at a bluff, overlooking a bend in the Don where a gravel bed has been exposed. During my surveys I always scanned the gravel for Killdeer or Spotted Sandpipers, but never saw either, despite it looking like a good spot for them. I did once see a Black-crowned Night Heron fishing from one of the low-hanging trees, but the bend, for all its nice scenery, was always disappointingly empty.

I pause, and look out over the river. The sun is peeking above the trees and casting a warm glow on the bare canopy of the forest across the way. It hasn’t yet reached the river, or even where I’m standing. I briefly consider stopping here, but decide I’d like to sit someplace in the sun, and move on.


The trail goes down a small incline (decline?) and where it levels out it passes through a small grove of spruce. Their lower branches have been pruned from them years ago to make room for trail users to pass through, which gives them an unusually domesticated look, for someplace far from the nearest backyard. In this natural tunnel I recall frequently encountering chickadees, kinglets, and Yellow-rumped Warblers during my spring surveys. There is no one here at the moment.

Northern Cardinal

In other areas, though, the trees are full of song. The cardinals have woken with the dawn, and perch in the upper branches of the poplars, illuminated by the warm orange rays of the rising sun. There are at least a dozen of them, I estimate, throughout the area. They all belt out their declaration of possession of their claimed bits of woodland. “Cheer! Cheer! Whit-whit-whit-whit! … Birdy, birdy, birdy-birdy-birdy-birdy!”

The other birds join in. I hear a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches arguing back and forth at each other over the ownership of a particular patch of cedars, and briefly glimpse a short chase as they dash through a small clearing. A pair of male Downy Woodpeckers has at it over the attentions of a female, who seems rather blasé about the whole episode. House Finches fly over the site in groups of two or three, and I hear the odd male singing. Chickadees move through a patch of hawthorn, calling to one another, and a trio of crows perches atop the maples and caw loudly. The birds seem to be as happy about the sunny morning and approach of spring as I am.

Don River

I come out from the spruce grove along side the river, at a lower area along its banks. The river takes another turn here and is lost from sight, winding its way through the city toward Lake Ontario. It is beautiful here, natural and undisturbed, but along its length it will run through less pristine areas, ultimately coming out through an industrial zone at its mouth before exiting into the lake. A freeway runs north and south through a large part of the valley system, but is far enough away here that I don’t notice it. A rail bed also runs along the valley, and a train thunders by while I’m there. It’s just beyond the ridge, and I can’t see it, but I can certainly hear it. I’ve seen salmon in these parts of the river before, and it seems at odds with the surrounding city, particularly considering the state of the mouth of the river. Nature forges onward.


I decide to take a trail branch that I’ve never been down. On this section of the trail I had always been in the middle of my survey and was unable to follow the side branches. They were often muddy, too, compared to the main trail. However, a few people have been down here recently, and the snow is packed enough to walk along comfortably. I come through another small grove of spruce and the trail widens into a small open area. The sun is streaming in here, and the spruce protect me from the wind. The clearing feels cozy, and I decide this is the spot. I find a log to settle on, and pull out my sketchbook.

I am not ordinarily a field-sketcher. Usually I’m too busy watching birds or taking photos to settle down somewhere and sketch. I admire those who do, though. Debby at Drawing The Motmot is a fabulous field-sketcher. I absolutely love her rainforest studies, which are done in pen while sitting in the field, over as many as three days.

While I have the skill to execute those sorts of drawings, I am sure, I also know I don’t have the practice, or the patience, right now. There’s too much to do, to look at, and I haven’t disciplined myself to sit still long enough to study the landscape and develop the eye necessary to render such detail so accurately. I content myself to sitting for perhaps 20 minutes, soaking up the warm sun, and casually sketching the trail in front of me. Perhaps I’ll make an effort this year to pause more often and sketch a little more.

Sketch of Sauriol trail