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Cardinal in the House

Thursday, January 15, 2009

I'll be honest: I'm spent from the giant otter orgy. Learning enough about them to write intelligently about them, editing the photos and composing the posts--mostly figuring out how to break this continuum of otter love into manageable pieces, was a big job. I'm not done with Guyana by a long shot, and I hope you're enjoying the tropical escape as much as I am. But I'm writing about cardinals for my next book, and they are much on my mind. I love them, love the fact that there is this brilliant red grosbeak that is ridiculously common (at least in southern Ohio) and can amass flocks of as many as 70 birds in my backyard. Please. 70 cardinals in a snowy backyard is something to see, my friends.

Just before the leaves fell I heard chipping from the living room. I had been in the habit of leaving the patio screen door open for Chet to come and go on those mild Indian summer days of late fall. He likes to lie in the sun out on the deck, baking his liver and lights, then come back in and cool off in the living room. Here is a gratuitous puppeh picture of Chet, worshipping the golden orb. I do not apologize for inserting a dose of Baker into most posts. He's essential Vitamin B, soaking up his Vitamin D.
photo by Bill Thompson III

A young male cardinal, his bill still black with youth, blundered into the living room and went straight for the high clerestory windows where he tried to make an escape through the glass. That's our bird tower you can see through the window.
There was nothing for me to do about it but go fetch the huge extension ladder from the garage. I don't much like carrying it and setting it up by myself inside the house, because I am 5'5" and it is 12'8". CLANK!I especially dislike setting it up right next to my 40-gallon freshwater Amazon tank, which is full of my little home-bred Emperor tetra friends (35 at last count) who are freaking out and praying that I won't screw up and smash their world. While I'm setting the ladder up I'm thinking, OK. If it tips and hits the tank, the first thing I will do is go get a muck bucket from the garage, and I'll fill it with one of the rainwater jugs from the orchid room, and then I'll scoop up all the wriggling fish from the living room carpet and put them in there, and then I'll put their heater in there, and then I'll go get that bowfront tank I have always wanted. But what if I have to drive to Columbus to get it? Better put the filter in, too. My Emperor tetras, who don't know when to quit mating and are all brothers and sisters and kissin'  cousins. They're their own grandpas.

Thoughts like that run through my mind. Contingency planning for the worst. They are likely not all that dissimilar from the panicked thoughts that run through a trapped cardinal's mind as I clank around beneath him.

I have to set the ladder up under the window that the cardinal has chosen, and climb it as quietly and unscarily as possible so the cardinal (or whatever bird is trapped; I've had everything from hummingbirds to brown creepers up there) won't freak out and switch windows, making me climb down and move the blinkin' ladder again.Cardinal, check. Ladder, check. Tank, check. OK. We're ready to climb. Gloves on?

I usually don't use gloves when handling birds, as there's no problem with leaving your smell on them (they don't mind and can't smell anyway.) With gloves you run a greater risk of hurting a bird through clumsiness. And most birds can't hurt you, more than maybe a pinch. So gloves are definitely overkill for handling 99% of the songbirds that you encounter. But cardinals are another matter. This little guy was too young to know how, but usually a cardinal who is caught in the hand will take the crushing power of that conical bill and turn it toward the webs between your fingers to excruciating effect. They'll grab those tender bits of skin and twist and wrench while biting down and OWWWWW it's all you can do to hold on. This guy was much more polite than most cardinals. Titmice and chickadees can open a good hole in you, too. They hammer your knuckle like it was a nut.
Before I released the little shaver, I took a good look at him, and noticed an anomalous patch of white feathers on his chin. I'm going to look at our winter flock and see if he retained it after the postjuvenal molt, see if there's a bright red boy with a white chin out there somewhere.
You're free to go, pretty one. See you at the feeders!


WOW all the way through, Julie. The most I ever got in the house was a barn swallow, but I guided him back out the door without having to grab him. I'd be too afraid to grab a live birdie.

Thanks for the shot of B(aker)12 too.

I've seen LOTS of cardinals but "70 in a snowy backyard" really would be spectacular; and interesting to hear that their beaks are that strong at such a young age. Glad for the happy ending (for both the cardinal, and you on the ladder).
(...and I know you put that gratuitous photo of CB inhaling sunshine in just for me... so I'm not even gonna acknowledge seeing it!)

But you loved it, didn't you. You loved it. You're here for the dog, Thrush.

I am so happy to see there was a happy ending for both the bird and the fish! ;o).

I am not getting nearly as many cardinals in my yard this winter as I thought I would have. I love how red they look against the white snow.

BTW: I just got your new book from Amazon and can't put it down. It is the perfect read on a cold winters night. Kind of like a cup of hot tea for the eyes!

Never had to bring a ladder in the house (hate being on a ladder), but the flicker that came down the chimney was a challenge. Get large, frightened, totally black (with soot) large woodpecker out of the fireplace and out of the house with harm coming to no one, was a trick. Fireplace doors in the way and one helpful schnauzer added to the circus.
Finally carried him out the deck door, he headed directly to the birdbath and bathed and bathed and bathed. He finally looked like a flicker again instead of a demented funky looking crow. Birdbath was nearly empty when he got done and sludge was abundant.
I have the snowy backyard at the moment, but never even 1 cardinal, much less 70. How lucky are you!
Caroline at 44N 103W

Good lord, how I miss cardinals. I've never seen one any closer to here than Tucson. Their range theoretically extends as far west as my digs in the eastern Mojave, but I haven't seen one there ever.

Good golly, I'm in shock from seeing such a well kept aquarium. No fuzzy glass ... live plants ...who knew?

I rescued a cardinal years ago from a chicken pen and never imagined that he might turn that bill on the webbing of my hand. He's so little! He's so strong! OUCH!
Of course, I once had a striped burrfish do the same thing when I snatched him up while snorkeling.
Not sure which was worse ... I know I yelled at about the same decibel level for each.

Love those tetras and the freshwater tank! I never had aquariums that elaborate but I did enjoy them.

You have 70 red ornaments...I'm happy with 20. Cardinals are always lovely, esp. the females. It's a good thing you didn't have a female to rescue! They tend to be jumpy.

I'm guilty of leaving the screen door open for Chloe & Bella to come and go, too. Those wrens can't resist an open door!

He's sweet. Keep looking for the white patch, Julie. Good rescue!


FC, you inspire me to do a tank post one of these days. It's been too long. Caroline, your flicker story is GREAT. Poor dude! I once had to rescue and wash a soot-black female wood duck who went down a chimney in Old Lyme CT for nesting purposes. She blew it. Poor thing. I had to wash her eyes out with contact lens solution.
Mare, my cardinal count is more like 30 or 40 this year, but who knows, with minus 4 tonight, what we'll see tomorrow. The snow is lovely but it squeaks something awful when it's below 10 degrees.

That picture of Chet is great! You can even see his enjoyment in the warming sun.

And great little story about the cardinal. Good to see everyone is safe and sound, even the fish.

Oh my, not only do we get a Chet Baker fix, but we get to see you holding a wonderful cardinal.
I am so jealous--cardinals are among my favorite birds--and the vision of 70 cardinals in your snowy yard is just overwhelming.
I admit I completely understand all that advance planning. Not exactly on the same level, but one time my husband had a business meeting that ran WAY late. I was waiting for him, all worried. I concluded he must have been in an accident. I had him dead, buried, funeral planned and all--when he walked in the door. Just a late teacher negotiation meeting. Humph--all that planning for . . .oh, hi dear--glad you are alive.

Julie, did you just reach up there and scoop him up, him without a fuss?

My neighbor had a female house finch in her house once, and was running through the house after it with a broom! Thankfully, she called me in a panic and I was able to corner her in the kitchen after opening the door to the garage and gently convince her it was a better place to be. Hummers in the garage are another story....

So glad you got him out and did not have to move that honking ladder!

A book about cardinals? I can't wait. I have a very sentimental attachment to cardinals - they were my Dad's favorite. Sadly he passed away this past April, but there were cardinals everywhere during his peaceful last days in a hospice house and they comforted me and made me smile in dark moments.
We had a pair that lived in our yard last year and there was a pair in my parents' yard too. They are gorgeous birds - I could watch them forever, taking turns at feeding, admiring those feathers, soaking up the contrast between scarlet, evergreen and white. I wonder what kinds of glorious hats might have been made from those feathers...sable and scarlet!
This year we are noticably cardinal-less. I've been putting out safflower seed under the tree they sat in last year but haven't seen a one. I miss them and their reminder of my Dad. So, Julie, your post about the rescued cardinal and thoughts of a book to come with more about them makes me so very happy! Can't wait.
By the way, as I thawed out my window slats with a lighter this morning to fill my cage feeder at the window I thought of you. -15 in my yard this morning when I went out to fill the suet cages and my new Christmas birdfeeder. Hope that helps keep everyone warm!

Cardinals are so beautiful, and we are so blessed to have them in such numbers here in southern Ohio! For some reason, one of their little calls reminds me of the sound of corduroy pant legs rubbing together for a brief second. A 70+ flock in the snow - yes I bet that's amazing!

And that blissed out Baker photo is priceless!!!

When do you think your book will be out? I cannot wait! Love your blog! Love birds, gardening, wildflowers and Zeke our Boston Terrier (from Jane also)

With that beatific look on his face, are you really sure he is just being a solar panel?

Haven't had any birds in this house but a chipmonk chewed through the screen to get at a bag of peanuts.

The cats thought it was a new toy. Mayhem ensued. ( the chipper got out safely)

Heather,I know that exact sound--vitt vitt--but had never made the connection. Great observation.

Karen, when a bird's focused on fluttering against a window it rarely moves around much--just flutters harder when you go to take it in your hand. It's there because it thinks it's going to get out somehow through the glass. You can pick up pretty much every songbird but a grosbeak (cardinal) with your bare hands and not fear a thing. People who go at birds with brooms and tennis rackets and baskets not only aren't going to catch the bird, they're going to hurt it or scare it even more. You can drop a towel over a hawk or owl and grasp it by the ankles,then stuff it under your arm to keep it from thrashing its wings. Gloves are recommended for that.

On the book: Fall 2010, for now. I'll have the text done by April 1 and then come the illustrations. Wish me strength. It's not just about cardinals--it's about many different birds. I hope you'll all love it.

Yea, Julie, cardinal-rescuer extraordinaire! (And yea, Chet Baker -- sun-worshipping hunk of puppeh love.) :D

I know that Cardinal Bite first hand . . oww is right! Hummingbirds, chickadees I would expect but Brown Creepers in the house . . ! That had to be a fun one to catch!

I love cardinals.We have a quite a few in these Blue Ridge mountains.

Had to laugh at the fish and the fact that they are their "own grandpas" I just taught that song to my AP biology kids and had them draw the family tree from the lyrics :)

Monarch, I wasn't sure what the creeper was until I got it in my hand. It was madly fluttering and I went and got the ladder and climbed up and caught it, brought it down to eye level and went gaaaaw-leeee! Semicircular pink toenails. Beautiful and so delicate.

Denise, I would like to send you some emperor tetras. Your students can do paternity testing on them. I think some of them are their own fathers. The reason I have 35 is that they are completely impossible to catch in a heavily planted tank. But I gave a mess of plants to my friend Leslie and there were three or four teeny little dudes in with them!

You know, just today I watched a large flock of reddish-somethings go over the house, and at first I dismissed them as robins. (They were flying into the sunset and were all aglow). Was I surprised when I looked through the bins and saw upteen-zillion cardinals! I had no idea they would form such a large group. It WAS fairly spectacular.

I've watched banders put rulers or small dowel rods in cardinals' mouths so they don't get free body piercings!

i had to comment on your ladder set up Julie.(i've been a house painter for the past 39 years).no wonder you're not comfortable on it----it's set up backwards-the other side should be against the wall.the rungs should be slanting towards you and the extension part should be on your side-not the'll be much more comfortable standing on it -and safer- and it's also easier to raise-use the rope that should have come with it (i don't see it). i have always enjoyed your art and writing-thank you for sharing them with the rest of us. sigh....a flock of 70 cardinals ...that just doesn't happen here in the the most pairs at a time-it was -30 here last week and the pine siskins are going crazy.

Thanks so much, Susan! Now I know why it's so scary. Ours is missing its rope so it's a pain to raise. I'll pay attention next time I set it up. Excitability killed the Science Chimp!

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