Counting cards … counting cardinals

We have kept a well-stocked bird feeder in our backyard for more than 20 years. Seeing the variety of songbirds and woodpeckers has given us hours of entertainment and occasionally some real excitement.

Several years ago in late winter, my wife Chris walked past the bathroom door and heard me softly counting aloud, “Fifteen, 16, 17 … no … 11, 12, 13, 14 …”

Naturally curious, she said, “Jack … what are you doing?”

Sounding somewhat unglued, I replied, “Counting cards … counting, counting cards … counting cardinals.” Chris thought she should check on my wellbeing.

Peeking in the door, she saw me with my face plastered to the window furiously trying to count the number of male cardinals at our bird feeder and adorning our backyard.

Never have we witnessed such a proliferation of cardinals. The crimson horde was awesome. They were everywhere … on the feeder, on the ground under the feeder, in the shrubs and the small trees and in the dark green evergreen tree by the feeder.

The fresh snowfall highlighted their vibrant red feathers. Our evergreen resembled a Christmas tree adorned with the festive splotches of red birds.

Over the years, we have enjoyed large groups of males around the feeder but nothing like this! My record to date was 14 males, and what I assumed were an equal number of females … but far more were there this time.

It’s not unusual to see cardinals flock to take advantage of food sources. However, in the few short weeks following late winter, the males become fierce rivals. They battle almost constantly to establish mates and nesting territories. They have even been known to battle their own reflections in windows and mirrors.

Not so this day!

Chris and I mentally divided the backyard and began to tally the birds. Our last somewhat confirmed number was 26 males and an equal number of females. There was no way we could get an accurate count of the subtle colored females.

Every time we would tally a cluster, one or two would move. Subtract … add … start all over again. We must have counted and recounted for 15 or 20 minutes.

Years ago, we hung a wire mesh sunflower seed feeder along with two suet block holders. The result has been a proliferation of songbirds and woodpeckers year-round. It is not uncommon to look out the window and see eight or 10 small songbirds on the feeder and several birds feeding on the scraps underneath. The diversity is fabulous.

Only feeding black sunflower seeds and suet minimizes the presence of less desirable guests like the invasive English sparrow and European starlings.

One of our treasured visitors to the suet blocks are the pileated woodpeckers. The crow-size, black cloaked birds with bright white and red heads are breathtaking. We refer to a couple and their progeny as “The Woodrows.”

The pileated woodpeckers have a raucous call sounding much like what one would expect to hear in the jungle.

The Woodrows have learned if they call enough, I’ll come out and refill the empty suet dispensers. You might say I’m at their beck and call.

Who said bird watching was easy?