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Corn-Totin' Mama Weighs In on Cardinal Flap

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A little corn will do wonders for a backyard. This day, when snow was coming down, I counted fifty cardinals in one sweep of my binoculars. That didn't count any in the back or side yards; that was just what I saw from the bank of north windows in the studio. We have cardinals like some people have mice, but I'm not complaining. Wondrous birds, miraculous birds, a grosbeak that 1. feeds on the ground 2. is incredibly common here 3. is tame and confiding 4. is solid red, riotous, tomato-gone-wild red. May I never become immune to the allure of cardinals.
Well, one male did fight his reflection in our windows one summer before Phoebe was born, and he was a flippin' drag. He started bonking the glass at 5:30 every morning and kept it up nonstop until nightfall. He woke us up every morning, Saturdays too. I don't know when he found time to eat. He certainly didn't participate in rearing his young; his mate raised her brood by herself. She had to have been asking herself what she was thinking when she said yes to him. Passing that warped territoriality gene on!
Those who say that someone shouldn't be bothered by behavior like this have obviously never had an insane cardinal attacking their house for months on end, dawn to dusk, nonstop. This bird wore all his toenails off on the cement sills of our basement windows, and they bled, so every time he jumped at a window, he bled all over it. And when I sprayed artificial snow or put Saran wrap on a window, he'd just move to another. Ever count the windows in your house? Me neither, but there are lots of them, and many I can't get to even with a ladder.
Months. We grew to loathe that bird, him and his haywire territoriality. I tried to trap him with food, but he had no interest in anything but the glass. I tried to lure him into the house, where I could get my hands on him, with a lifelike carved cardinal and tapes of cardinal song. No luck. People sometimes call me an expert on such things, and he completely bamboozled me. Finally one day he was gone, and I'm sure he had to have been killed, because nothing but death could have stopped him. The silence was deafening. It took me a week to stop waking up at 5:30; I was so used to waking up to the bonk of beak on glass. We breathed a huge sigh of relief, along with a prayer that one of his sons wouldn't take up the glass-fighting banner in his wake.
Comparing notes with my friend Larry Barth in western PA, I learned that the Barths were unwilling hosts to a FEMALE cardinal who fought every window in their house for SIX YEARS. Yes. Winter, summer, year round. So much for those who proclaim that only male birds do this; that the territorial instinct will wane when breeding season passes. Larry Barth (master bird carver and artist) knows more about birds than almost anyone I've met, and he never figured out how to dissuade her.

What's operating here is a supernormal stimulus, a rival that won't go away no matter how aggressively it's attacked. And we have a bird that becomes obsessed with this unnatural stimulus, and forgets how to be a cardinal. This bird's mate raised the first brood herself, but that was it. He couldn't be bothered to court or mate. He was like any addict: immersed in his addiction,insensate to anything else.

I read the Newsweek piece that everyone's talking about.

Having suffered the attentions of a mind-gone window-fighting cardinal, I was not so much outraged that the "gun-toting granny" offed the bird as I was that Newsweek saw the essay fit to print. Did anyone on the editorial staff have a concern as to the legality of her action? I have had some experience with magazine editing, and I've seen how meticulously NPR checks facts, and I simply can't believe Newsweek would overlook the myriad red flags her piece raises, and print it without at least some informational disclaimer. Their editorial decision to print her essay, crowing about having killed a native songbird, was either incredibly ignorant, incredibly arrogant, or both. They've made themselves quite a bed.

All our cardinals now are sane. Durn good thing, too, because we have a whole lot of them.

It's also a good thing deer don't often take to fighting windows. You'd have a real problem on your hands.

This fawn is looking undernourished to me. I hope the corn helps him make it through the winter. Fawns get this kind of dome-headed look when they're malnourished, I think because their eyes are sunken. I'll put out an extra measure of corn for him, and buy another 50 lb. bag tomorrow.

They know who the Corn Lady is, but they make a big show of trotting off when I open the window to get a better picture of them. They only go a few yards, then stare and stamp until I close the window and let them feed in peace.
Don't get any ideas, big guy.


I live in Michigan and have a crazy cardinal problem too. Last year, a female cardinal banged on our windows every 3-4 seconds from dawn to dusk from March until August. My 3 teenagers were less than thrilled to be awakened by the constant tapping every day. It went from window to window...some with drapes, some without...and would dive at the window from an angle that it couldn't even see its reflection. We're not sure what its motivation was, but were thrilled when it stopped in August. BUT, here it is March again...and she's back. My kids aren't looking forward to another 6 months of early alarm clocks!

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