Written by an area Landscape Architect and birdwatcher with over 30 years of experience with landscaping in north Texas: what works and what doesn't. Emphasis on attracting birds to north Texas yards, and reducing required yard maintenance. Tips, trivia and proven advice for a natural, low-cost approach for this unique and sensitive part of the country.
name “cardinalis” (the bird’s scientific name) was chosen by Swedish botanist
Linnaeus because it reminded him of the red robes of the Cardinals of the
Catholic Church.Few people care, but
technically it’s a “Northern Cardinal”.
the 1800s, the Northern Cardinal occurred naturally in North
America only as far north as southern New York and west only to wooded portions of
the Great Plains.Back then, it could be seen only rarely in
the 21st century, the Cardinal is almost everywhere in this country
(except large chunks of the West) and is one of the birdwatchers’ favorites.
Its popularity is probably due to its bright color. Cardinals aren’t native to
the Western states but were introduced on several occasions, beginning in 1880.
It didn’t take well, but by the 1920s there was finally a self-sustaining population in
Los AngelesCounty. There were several introductions
on the Hawaiian Islands, between 1929 and
1931.Today the Cardinal is a common
backyard bird on many of the larger islands. Cardinals were also introduced,
successfully, to Bermuda “a long time ago”
(nobody kept records).The Cardinal (or
“redbird”) has been introduced into several other places, with varying degrees
original population has expanded too. Thanks largely to the birds’
adaptability, and the increasing number of people who feed birds and provide
habitat. Backyard bird-feeding became popular at the start of the 20th
century, enabling the birds to survive cold, harsh winters and hot, dry
summers.Today, their range extends
north into southern Canada,
and their numbers are growing from the Rocky Mountains,
east to the Atlantic seaboard. By the way, the Arizona Cardinals of professional
actually a similar-looking Pyrrhuloxia, native to the southwest (when
the team was in St. Louis,
the name made sense); the Cardinal isn’t native to Arizona.
ago, Cardinals only lived naturally along rivers and steams, and at the forest
edges occurring naturally (such as were created by fires or floods). However,
as man cleared small spaces for homesites, more and more “forest edge” was
created. Humans even grew and stored lots of Cardinal-food such as wheat and
corn.If humans had set out to create
habitat for Cardinals, we couldn’t have done much better.
to Cardinals’ casual proximity to humans, we have plenty of opportunity to
observe their behavior. For instance, the female Cardinal seems to do all the
nest construction.She also sits on the
eggs, while the male makes trip after trip - bringing food to the female and
(when the eggs hatch) to the 2 to 5 fledglings. The nest is usually less than
10 feet from the ground (often lower). They’re
concealed within dense vegetation however.
and females escort fledglings (just-out-of-the-nest youngsters) to the vicinity
of birdfeeders. The parents will bring seeds to the fledglings, with the adult
male doing most of the work. The adults soon tire of this, and the clumsy
fledglings (now knowing where the feeder is) come by themselves. You’ll
recognize them by their black bills, gaping mouths, short tails, and
wing-quivering. This “teaching by example” happens often at backyard birdbaths
too.Watching them try to take a bath is
amusing (any birdbath deeper than 2 or 3 inches, by the way, is too threatening
to almost all birds).
late summer, the fledglings will have matured. Then all Cardinals, start to get
ready for the winter ahead, and molt their feathers, often looking unkempt in the
process. Sometimes, most of the head feathers will be gone at the same time
leaving a bare-headed bird (looking sort of like a vulture).Don’t worry, it’s not diseased - and winter
feathers will soon grow in.
the winter, Cardinals often join informal flocks and visit
feeders (and the
ground below them) in large numbers. This is when you can see them almost every
day - especially just after dawn and near dusk They appreciate feeders with
“cardinal rings” or other perches that don’t require them to bend their necks
(not easy for a Cardinal, anatomically). They eat a large variety of seed and,
sometimes, even suet; preferring a seed blend that’s heavy on fresh sunflower
seeds. If their finely-tuned senses tell them a seed is stale or dried out,
they’ll just drop it and go to another yard.
OWEN YOST, in
addition to being a blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has
lived and worked in north Texas for over 30 years. He is the recipient of a
Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and is a
member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International
Federation of Landscape Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the
Audubon Society. His office is at Yost87@charter.net in Denton.
people know that, at night, lit buildings cause migrating birds to crash into
them. Thousands and thousands die (in every city in the country) from flying
into usually-empty buildings. All because the inside lights are left on. Many
are owned by or leased by the State, hence a partial solution:
Minnesota, the governor signed a law directing that the 5,326 state-owned or
state- leased buildings turn off interior lights after midnight, during spring
and fall bird migrations. This happened with leadership by several local
birding organizations. Not only does this save birds, but it reduces CO2
emissions, saves energy and saves taxpayers’ money.
North Texas is on the central flyway, along which millions of birds migrate twice each year. Why am
I writing about this now? Well, we all know how long it takes for a bill to get
agreed on and signed into law.
The largest warbler there is:
The Yellow-breasted Chat is seen
fairly commonly in north Texas, although often called by an inconclusive name
such as “What’s That?”
It’s a warbler – at 7-inches long the
largest warbler there is. It's most identifiable by the white "goggles" around the eyes.
Nestlings (out of the egg, but still in the nest) eat
only insects. Out of the nest, the juveniles add fruits and berries to their
diet - never seeds. The curious habit of some juvenile Chats is to wander
northward after the late spring breeding season, instead of to their
traditional wintering grounds in far south Texas and Central America, down to Panama.
OWEN YOST, in addition to being a
blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has lived and worked in
north Texas for over 30 years. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement
Award of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and is a member of the American
Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape
Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. His office is
at Yost87@charter.net in Denton.