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May 17, 2011 / stephanie

Columbus, Cardinals, and Cats

Spring is now in full bloom here in the Midwest, and with the advent of spring 2011 comes a new field season for wandering biologists like myself. This year, I have temporarily relocated to Columbus, Ohio to work on an urban bird study with the Ohio State University. I have been meaning to post about it for awhile, but have been pretty busy with work plus the excitement of spring migration.

Now that I have finally sat down to type a bit about my work here, it is a little overwhelming since so much has happened! Let me just explain a little bit about what I’m doing here. We are monitoring birds (specifically American Robins, Northern Cardinals & Gray Catbirds) that are nesting in urban neighborhoods, with the permission of the kind homeowners who are allowing us to use their yards. The hardest part of nest monitoring can be finding the nests to begin with. Once in awhile though, we get lucky and it’s pretty easy. Either a robin is building a nest above someone’s porchlight, or a participating homeowner steps outside and lets us know that they have found the nest themselves. In one case, a robin had been building right inside of a child’s playhouse.

Robin nest

It is definitely a different kind of field job than ones that I have had in the past. It is a lot less dangerous in some regards (no ticks or poison ivy or military practices to avoid, no venomous snakes or wolves to be wary of) but it’s not without its own risks, like… rusty nails lurking in old wooden gates! Slippery steps! Traffic! And uh… sometimes Robins dive-bomb at my face when I interrupt them on the nest. OK, so I’m not in that great of danger really. The urban habitat may actually pose a much greater risk for the birds than for me. First off, and another thing I haven’t dealt with in field jobs before, there are house cats and strays absolutely everywhere. I like cats and when I’m working on my own, sure, they provide nice company. But, I don’t exactly want a furry little predator following me around when we’re either trying to band birds or searching for nests and fledglings. Of course, the cats will be gobbling up baby birds all summer long without us even being there, we just don’t want to be the ones influencing that predation in any way, so we have to be pretty careful. I’ll stand around for awhile and the cats will usually get bored and wander off to stalk something.

At one of our study sites, an outdoor house cat watches potential prey in a yard with a dozen or more birdfeeders

Other predators that we have to be watchful of are hawks, crows, Blue Jays, and raccoons, which are all over urban areas just waiting to chomp on eggs and baby birds. It’s not easy to raise a clutch in the bird world, but it never has been no matter where you go. The mortality rate for birds in their first year of life is incredibly high and it’s highest at the very earliest stages of life. Nest building songbirds, such as our focal species, make up for this by being incredibly persistent. If one nest fails, they will immediately start rebuilding a new nest in a different location. And once their young take flight and leave the nest, it may not take very long for the adult pair to start up with their next nest, especially if one parent takes on all the feeding duties.

So far in our season, we’ve seen lots of nest failures, but a few have birds have already squeaked out some fledglings! The cats might snag some of the fledges, but I’m sure a few will make it!

Here’s a little peek at the life cycle of a Cardinal nest:

Cardinal nest with two eggs, seems to be a fairly typical clutch size for this species.

Cardinal nestlings getting big! Just a few days away from fledging (leaving the nest)

Cardinal Fledgling! Free from the nest and can make short flights, but a little clumsy still. He or she will still depend on mom and dad for food for some time.

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