Tuesday, June 28, 2011

In Our Backyard

We spend a lot of time on the patio in the evening during the spring and summer.  It faces northwest and offers a great view of some spectacular sunsets.  There is a small Crepe Myrtle tree next to the patio that is a favorite nesting site for a pair of cardinals.  We noticed babies in the nest in May of this year, then only a week or two later, they just disappeared.  We didn't see the parents around either and were afraid they had abandoned the nest because something got the babies.  But a week or two later, we noticed the parents were back.  So I decided to do some research on cardinals.

I found out they raise two or three sets of babies every year and always nest within a mile of where they themselves had been born.  The babies leave the nest at only 14 days old, but have very poor flying skills at that age.  They usually fly from the nest to the ground or a low shrub and rest for several hours before trying again.  Within a few days, they gain their strength and skill to fly back up to the tree tops.  Until then, their parents watch over them, providing food and encouragement and as much protection as possible. 

Yesterday when I walked past the little tree by the patio, I noticed the male cardinal flitting nervously from the tree to the roof to the ground and back again.  Cardinals have a very distinct call, a sharp chirp.  The male was on the roof, chirping away and I was sure I heard a chirp on the ground too.  I looked and on one of the lowest branches of a volunteer under the little tree was this tiny little baby cardinal.  When Yeoldfurt came over to see what I was looking at, we found the other one on the ground under the tree.  Though they are both more fuzz than feathers at this stage, I was pretty sure one was a male and one was a female.  The one that was on the branch had fuzz on top of his head that was distinctly pointy on top, like a male cardinal.  The other baby just had smooth fuzz on top, probably a female.

We worried about them being out of the nest overnight, but I told Yeoldfurt what I had read about the parents watching over them and we decided to let nature take its course.  This morning, I went out to check and found both of the babies up on a low branch about a foot off the ground.   Our fifteen year old cat, Charley, hangs out in the backyard but her hunting instincts have never been keen.  This cat used to roll over on her back, look at you upside down and beg for food if she liked what you had.  But chasing food had never been in her repertoire.  She would barely chase a toy, even when she was a kitten.  Too much work.  Now that she's older, she's more lazy than ever, so we didn't think she would be a threat to the babies.

Charley was sitting on a plastic step this morning about fifteen feet from where the babies sat on the low branches.  As I stood there admiring the babies, the female suddenly took off and flew toward the yard.  Her trajectory took her inches from Charley's nose and she landed on the ground about fifteen feet beyond Charley.  I was startled and amazed and happy to see the little fuzzball take flight, but then I saw the look on Charley's face.  Apparently, her hunting instincts were aroused, possibly for the first time in her life.  Her eyes were huge, her ears were pricked and she was crouched in front with her butt slightly elevated.  Her tail whipped once to the right, then once to the left and just as I yelled, "Charley, NO!!!" she launched.

I launched a split second behind her but before I could reach her, she was on top of the little fuzzball.  Fortunately for the baby bird, Charley had been an indoor cat the first ten years of her life and due to a disagreement she and I had about her using my pool table for a scratching post, she no longer has front claws.  That fact didn't do much to reduce the terror the little fuzzball was feeling though.  As I grabbed Charley by the scruff, I was aware of  the baby's frantic chirps from below me and the parent's angry chirps behind me.

PETA might be after me for this but all I was thinking of was the baby bird.  I grabbed Charley by the scruff of the neck with my left hand and by the scruff of her butt with my right hand and tossed her to the side.  It was a gentle toss, it really was ...more of a lob, really.  My only motive was to save the baby bird, not hurt the cat ...I swear.

As soon as I lifted Charley off the ground, the little baby bird was free but didn't move.  I wasn't sure if it was hurt or just scared but I didn't have time to investigate because Charley, being a cat, had landed on her feet about ten feet away and was making a beeline back.   I intercepted her in the same double scruff fashion and carried her across the yard to the garage.  I deposited her inside and shut the door.  I knew and she knew that she wasn't trapped in the garage.  We keep one of the overhead doors open about six inches so the cats can come and go, but I knew it would take her some time to think of the other door and make her way to the backyard again.

As soon as I shut the door behind Charley, I looked back to check on the baby bird and was relieved to see it half-fluttering, half-hopping across the yard in the opposite direction.  Its two parents were doing their best to herd it to safety.  One of them would land a few feet in front of the baby as if to show it the way, and the other was diving and chirping from behind, as if trying to hurry it up.

Charley made her way to the backyard again sooner than I expected, but by then both babies were safely perched on the chain link fence, a good ways from where all the drama had started.  Charley being new to the role of predator seemed fixated on the spot where she landed on the baby bird the first time.  She seemed to know she had missed out on something, but she wasn't quite sure what ...and she sure didn't seem to have any idea where that something might be now.


  1. I went back and added pictures of the two little fuzzballs. Last I saw of them they perched in some safe shrubs AWAY from my marauding cat. I like to think they are both well and growing feathers.

    Yes, Stephen, nature is amazing and has amazing lessons for any who are willing to learn.

    Redneck, looks like Tuesday might be our best bet. I'll talk to YOF tonight and email you.

  2. How fun to hear about all of that...I have never seen a red cardinal in real life but they are so beautiful and it sounds like they are wonderful parents. :D

  3. Hi, Julie ...yes, they are really beautiful birds.

    When we moved here in 2006, one of our other cats caught a baby owl. It was the cutest thing with great big eyes. It was almost bigger than the cat and I'm sure heavier so it got away ...but it couldn't fly yet. That's when we found it so we helped it back to the woods where I'm sure it's parents were watching for it. Baby owls start out on the forest floor too with their parents watching over them.

    Thanks for the visit, Julie ...always a nice surprise.

    : )