By: Tracy Novinger, Travis Audubon Master Birder
The first Austin house we lived in had a breakfast nook that looked out to a small back yard. My husband and I liked to eat at the table there. In fine weather, we often ate outside at a wooden picnic table, inhaling the scent of the season. A breeze would stroke our skin as sporadic gusts of wind ruffled our hair. The yard had one sapling, two spindly trees and a few bushes. We liked to watch bright Cardinals and soon realized that the species has several broods per year.
One Spring we watched a male Cardinal begin to court a female, showing off his bright plumage from the top of a tree. Cheer, cheer, cheer, he called. In another tree nearby, we saw the female flutter from one branch to another. The male chipped to her. She chipped back, then moved. The male chip, chip, chipped in response. Where are you?
Chip, chip, chip. Over here.
Where? he chipped.
She responded chip, chip. Right here.
Here! I imagined hearing annoyance in that last chip.
One thing led to another and the pair soon built a nest. It was not long before we saw them carry food to their fledglings, which in itself is not surprising.
We were in for a surprise, however, when a second brood hatched. The fledglings of the first brood helped the parent birds carry food to the second brood. There was a third brood and again siblings from an older brood helped feed the youngest birds.
We had not realized that the Cardinal family lived as a collective that relied on its own internal hierarchy. It seems like effective organization, evolved for survival of the species. I feel fortunate to have become aware of this behavior through observation. It was a real treat.