Cardinals As Parents (don’t tell the Pope)

short stories

Doug Alt


Over several years, in our back yard in Wanamassa, my wife Carolyn and I have observed the annual ritual of parent cardinals teaching the new crop of cardinal children how, once they have learned to fly and can leave the nest for short jaunts, to find food on their own, thus weaning the kids from dependence on Mom and Dad for food.

Both cardinal parents, Mom and Dad, seem to share equally in the weaning/educational process, either working as a team, or alternating as individuals.

A food-finding lesson begins with Mom or Dad cardinal, or both, flying into the yard with hungry, cheeping youngsters right on their tail(s). Our yard is a good destination, since we put out bird seed fairly consistently. We put the bird seed in little clumps along the top of our deck railing so we can easily watch the various feathered visitors from our kitchen windows.

Upon landing near the food, the hungry kids continue their chorus of loud cheeping that interprets as, “Feed me, feed me!” The adult walks right onto the seeds spread on the railing, with chicks following close behind, then, with very exaggerated motions, picks up a seed and places into one of the hungry mouths. After one quick gulp, the chick resumes full-volume cheeping, “Feed me, feed me!”

The wise adult then ignores the youngster for a few seconds, then stomps around on the seeds a bit, as if to say, “Look at what I’m standing on here.”

Of course, the adult-dependent little one misses the message completely at first, and continues to cheep incessantly.

The adult then repeats the exaggerated-motion sequence of picking up a seed and placing it in the waiting mouth, but then, turns its back on the youngster and waits, hoping that the hungry baby will notice that there is a whole pile of additional seeds right at foot.

If the chick doesn’t get the message quite yet, the parent will repeat the whole sequence, but then will walk away a few steps after turning its back, leaving the chick alone with all the food.

The adult may give in to the cheeping again and walk back to pick up one more seed to place in the baby’s mouth, this time either turning and walking much farther away or flying away to a near-by branch to see if the chick, if left completely on his/her own, might look down at the bountiful food supply and try picking up one of the seeds.

The first and second food-finding lessons usually end up with the young birds continuing to cheep hungrily, while ignoring the seeds in front of their beaks, until the adults finally fly away back to the nest, with the youngsters in close pursuit, to resume the “OK, we’ll feed you in the nest” routine for another day.

It appears to us that it takes a few days or so for the food-finding lessons to finally register in the young birds brains, but within about a week, the parents finally achieve their goal of getting the young birds successfully finding their own food.

This is classic “parenting” at its best!

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