February Bird Questions and Answers
Have you heard red-wing blackbirds trilling yet? Maybe you are wondering: are there more northern cardinals around than usual? Or, maybe you’ve seen a purple
sandpiper and are curious about why it’s called “purple”, when its orangey-ochre colored feet and legs are so striking?
Ahhhh, February, so many bird questions and so few days.
Like many questions, there are few easy, hard-and-fast answers. The “have you heard” question is an easy yes or no. But the rarely-seen purple sheen on some of the purple sandpiper’s wing feathers leaves the answer in the realm of faith – I’ve certainly never gotten close enough to one to notice the purplish. And, the answer to some questions such as are there more or less of a particular species in a particular year, can be really hard to quantify – at least in a short span of time.
Fortunately, in the case of northern cardinals, there are observation records to support the generally increasing numbers of cardinals on Block Island, and in New England, over the past decades. Northern cardinal is one of the species that has been moving its range northward. This range shift has been well-documented through the collective power of community scientists contributing to organized observation efforts such as the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird
Count, federal and state-organized Breeding Bird Atlases, and the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), a joint effort of National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Block Island is fortunate to have a long history of people observing the comings and goings of birds. One of the first (if not the first) recording of northern cardinals on Block Island was made by Elizabeth Dickens in a letter to Oswald Littlefield dated February 15, 1958.
“For the first time we are having a few Cardinals. The first two males showed up at Larry O’Keefe’s pine tree in December. Melvin and Mazie Rose have had three females come to their food twice every day since January 4. Eileen Lee called to tell me of a male at their house day-before-yesterday. This species seems to be moving in all thru this section of Rhode New England.”
So, the answer to “are there more cardinals this year?” is one of context. Yes, there are more than there were 64 years ago. Northern cardinals are now a common bird on the island and are generally considered to be a resident, mostly non-migratory bird. However, young-of-the-year birds may disperse widely either to or from the island. These dispersals in combination with high fledgling success can result in strong fluctuations of numbers in any given year. So, again, the answer to the question is tricky: if it seems like you are seeing more cardinals around the yard and at the feeder then the reason is likely due to there being more of last year’s young around and thriving, or you have some really high-quality bird feed on offer. In any case, enjoy them! There is nothing more resplendent than a northern
cardinal reflecting crimson against a backdrop of snowy branches. And soon, they will be adding their flutey whistle of “cheer-cheer-cheer” in accompaniment with trilling red-wings in the opening movement of a spring symphony.
Great Backyard Bird Count 2022
February 18 through 21
In the same letter noted above, E. Dickens added “I have about 15 Red-wings feeding at my doorstep along with Crows, 1 beautiful male Pheasant, Song Sparrows and now and then a Junco. But the prize goes to the Lark Sparrow which is very rare in Rhode Island.” This observation is of exactly the same type of information that is gleaned through the efforts of the annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) each February. This is an international effort to get a glimpse of bird populations globally and is timed to occur on the cusp of a seasonal migration shift. It is easy to participate! Go to www.birdcount.org/ or join Kim Gaffett for a bird walk and GBBC tutorial on Friday, February 18 at 3 p.m..at Cormorant Cove.