Thom Smith | NatureWatch: Flocks of cardinals common during non-breeding season

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Q: The weekend of Nov. 7 and 8, in addition to our regular birds, squirrels and chipmunks, my husband and I observed four pairs of cardinals feeding all together and all at once in our backyard. They didn't have a preference for the feeders, or the ground, and would eat black oil sunflower seed together at either location. We have had two pairs for several years now, but never this many and all at once. We thought they were territorial. Do they allow offspring to stay with them and, if so, how long? They don't seem to mind our large mastiff roaming around either. They seem to prefer early morning or dusk, will also come at any time of day. They are such a treat to watch, and our guests enjoy sitting on the sunporch to observe them.

— Dave and Melody, Windsor

A: While we have learned that birds are governed by instincts, they are far more complex than we understand. And these inherited laws, among some species, do allow them to go their way from time to time and to choose what is most beneficial. The strongest obvious instinct governs survival. And survival during mating and breeding season is probably the most obvious to us, along with at feeders. First, have you noticed that usually only one chickadee is perched at a feeder at one time, but has no problem with being followed immediately by another? Meanwhile, at the same feeder, only a bonded pair of cardinals will share a feeder when bonding is at its strongest, and it is not rare to see a female perched nearby and a bonded male bringing it seeds or insect grub. During non-breeding season, things are different. By now, we understand that during the breeding season, the male will fiercely protect its food source and nest, as well as its mate, from another male cardinal. This is the usual time period when they attack reflections, be they from a window, shiny hubcap or side-view mirror. The male cardinal fiercely defends its breeding territory from other males. When a male sees its reflection in glass surfaces, it frequently will spend hours fighting the imaginary intruder.

This instinctual behavior is not as strong during the autumn and winter months. I have seen photographs of 25 or so cardinals, both male and female, at a feeding station of about eight feeders. There was one such in Sandisfield, I believe, but cannot find the photograph the reader sent to me. In fall and winter, cardinals can and do form large flocks of a dozen to several dozen birds.

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This is what local NatureWatch readers have been confirming:

Feb. 18, 2019: I counted 18 cardinals in my backyard (mix of males and females) along with the red squirrel. This past Sunday, I had six robins (guess spring is on its way) — Maureen, Adams

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Dec. 30, 2018: I just had six male and six female cardinals at my feeders. — Nancy, Pittsfield

March 20, 2017: I wanted to let you know that all winter I have had five pairs of cardinals (male/female) and they all seem to get along just fine. I spread the black oil sunflower and safflower seeds under the bushes for them. — Maureen, Adams

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March 18, 2017: I don't know where all these cardinals are coming from in the area, but this winter has brought the most I've ever seen. At one point, I saw eight pairs. That was in one view out back. This past month, it's just been a "cardinal convention," one after another at the feeder. And another email: Shame on me for not reporting to you that I saw 15 cardinals at one time out my kitchen window on either Tuesday or Wednesday during the snowfall. Once, there were six cardinals on the hopper feeder's baffle, and one on the roof of the feeder, and one at the feeder itself. I didn't even take the time to run to the other window to check that feeder to see if there were any more. — Howard, Schuylerville, N.Y

March 12, 2017: I recently noticed something I hadn't seen before. On March 11, I saw a flock of cardinals ground feeding beneath our bird feeder in Pittsfield. There were five males and a female. Is it unusual for cardinals to flock like this? I usually only see a mating pair. — Florian, Pittsfield

Jan. 9, 2015: We have many beautiful cardinals at our feeders this winter. There are usually seven to eight males and five to six females in our backyard at one time. What a lovely sight, especially with snow as a background. Not sure why we have so many, but they are definitely a welcomed visitor for avid bird watchers! — Carole, Pittsfield

This list continues, but this gives us an idea that sometimes cardinals travel in flocks or assemble and tolerate each other. And, for those who want to have the privilege of entertaining and being entertained by one of our most spectacular songbirds, almost any kind of feeder will attract them — hopper, tube, tray or scattered on the ground, as long as you offer black oil sunflower seed. I began with the whole seed, that they may be more familiar with, and progressed to shelled sunflower seeds, called sunflower hearts.


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