For the Birds: Cardinals provide the entertainment

Photo by Chris Bosak – An immature cardinal perches in a bush next to a feeder.

My intermittent foot problems have kept me grounded for the most part over the last few weeks, so I have relied heavily on my backyard birds to keep me entertained.

Thankfully, it is a great time of year to watch birds in the backyard. Just as fall migration brings many birds to our parks and open spaces, they also bring plenty of birds to the backyard.

In addition to the common feeder birds, I have seen a few surprises either at the feeder or among the bushes near the feeder. One day I was sitting outside working when a ruby-crowned kinglet flew right past my face and landed in a bush about five feet away from me. Like most kinglets, it did not sit still for very long and hopped around the branches before disappearing in a matter of seconds. It was a nice little visit anyway.

My most exciting visitor was a red-breasted nuthatch that I saw in my birdbath one day. Red-breasted nuthatches are the dominant nuthatch in northern New England, but their numbers start to fade as you go south and are pretty much nonexistent in southern New England, except for the occasional fall or winter visitor.

What has kept me most entertained, however, is the family of northern cardinals that visits daily. Like many cardinals, they are the first ones at the feeders in the morning and the last ones to leave in the evening. But these cardinals are also frequent visitors throughout the day.

Watching the family — a male, female, and immature — makes for a good study of differentiating the young cardinal from the female.

At a quick glance or to someone just starting out in the hobby, an immature cardinal may be easily confused with a female adult. They are both more drab than the bright red male, but there are obvious differences between them. An adult female has brighter plumage, a black face (similar to an adult male) and a bright orange bill. The adult female also shows some red on its wings, crest, and tail. 

An immature cardinal is drab overall, does not have a black face, and its bill is dull, not like the bright orange bill of the adults. Also, immature cardinals are overall more scraggly looking.

It will take about a year for young cardinals to attain their adult plumage.

The differences between male and female cardinals are quite obvious, of course. But differentiating a female cardinal and an immature cardinal is a lot more tricky. But knowing what to look for can make that chore a lot simpler. Mostly look at the bill and the overall appearance. An adult female will look much more sleek than the shabby immature bird.

Fall in New England, of course, also brings with it fall foliage. That makes watching birds that much more special this time of year. Similar to how a snowy background enhances the birdwatching experience, so do the magnificent colors of New England fall. 

I hope to get back out there quickly, but if not, I look forward to getting to know my backyard birds even better. There is always so much to learn in the natural world.

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