2010-05-22 / Columnists

Nature Notes

Cardinals, Sharp-shin Hawks Can be Heard on Mackinac
By Patricia Martin

One of the joys I have, after my horse has returned to the Island, is getting up early and walking up the hill behind my house to feed him. I know it sounds odd, but this is my quiet time for thinking and listening. My dog and I head up the stairs and I get to hear all the early birds singing their hearts out and the squirrels, chipmunks, and Eastern cottontails scampering out of our way. In the evening I repeat this trek, but then I listen to a different set of birds.

Heading up the hill lately, I’ve been hearing an abundance of calls from the northern cardinal. The striking red color of the male cardinal usually catches the attention of people yeararound on the Island, but for me it is their calls that capture my notice, as even with their bright color, they’re often hidden in the cedar trees. The songs of the northern cardinal are quite variable. They’re usually composed of a variety of gurgling and clear whistled melodies. More than 25 different songs have been catalogued. The most common phrases include “whoit cheer,” “whoit cheer, cheer-cheer-cheer,” “cheer, whoit-whoit-whoit,” “wheatwheat wheat,” and “bir-dy, birdy, bir-dy, bir-dy.” The call of the cardinal is rather abrasive metallic “chip” or “pik.” During breeding season, the female sings courtship duets with the male after he has established his territory but before nesting. The female also sings while on the nest and it is believed that she is informing her partner whether or not she and the young need food.

Cardinal Cardinal Picking out the male cardinal by sight is easy. With its bright red plumage, pointed crest, black throat, and mask, he is highly distinctive. This bird’s name comes from the vivid red plumage which resembles the red robes of Roman Catholic cardinals. The female is less brilliantly attired. While shaped like the male, she is brown, buff, to olive overall with a red bill, crest, and reddened wings and tail. It is usually easy to identify the female because she is often with her male mate. Cardinals form faithful pair bonds. The male and female remain in close contact year-around, singing to one another through the seasons with soft, bubbly whistles. The male is very territorial and will fight other birds to defend his territory. He will even fight his own reflection in a window, mirror, chrome hubcap, or other shiny material.

Below: Sharp-shin Hawk Below: Sharp-shin Hawk During the breeding season, these birds are solitary or in pairs, but the rest of the year they’re gregarious, forming flocks in winter or joining mixed species foraging flocks. They forage in trees, bushes, and on the ground, eating insects, grains, fruits, and snails. They even drink sap from holes drilled by sapsuckers. On the ground, they hop from place to place rather than walking.

In Michigan they’re a common year-around resident in the Lower Peninsula and in the islands in the Straits of Mackinac. Mackinac Island is at the northern edge of the cardinal’s range, although over the last century, it has expanded north owing, perhaps, to the increase in feeding stations. I love to see them coming to my feeder.

In the evening lately, it’s a very different bird I hear in the woods behind the turnout where my horse feeds. The call I hear is a sharp, intense, and often repeated “kik-kik-kikkik.” It’s the sound of the sharp-shinned hawk, which is usually silent except for the breeding season or when disturbed. Sharp-shinned hawks are the smallest of the North American accipiters, with a total length in the females of 12 to 14 inches (males are smaller, 10 to 12 inches) and a wingspan of 24 to 28 inches in the female (males, 20 to 24 inches). These woodland hawks are agile hunters, preying almost exclusively on small birds, chasing them through the forest and then taking them back to a favorite perch, a “plucking post” if you would, grasping the meal in their razor-sharp talons. I’ve seen one patiently trying to catch one of the smaller birds that gather at my feeder, circling overhead and making a dead drop on a bird if they don’t quickly hide under a shrub. Birds are their most common prey, but they also will eat small mammals (including bats), reptiles, grasshoppers, and other large insects.

By sight, they’re identified by their size, their short, rounded wings and square-tipped, barred, long rudder-like tail, which help them maneuver in the woods, dark barring on their pale underwings, reddish horizontal barring on underparts, and a blue-gray back. Their eyes are also red. The sharpshin name comes from their flattened thin tarsus or shank of the leg. In flight, they flap and glide and can turn quickly at high speeds.

These birds are common breeders in northern Michigan and they nest here on Mackinac. They may spend their winters in the southern counties of the state, although they are uncommon. Sharpshinned hawks are usually found in dense to semi-open forest and large wood lots, occasionally along rivers and in urban areas. They nest in dense, moist coniferous forests and usually build a new nest each year, though they may remodel an old crow’s nest. On Mackinac the dense northern white-cedar trees are wonderful nesting sites. While the female incubates the four to five eggs for more than a month, the male feeds the female. He continues to feed the female and the nestlings after they hatch, but he does so cautiously, as the female is about a third larger and is notoriously short-tempered. Most people never see a sharp-shin’s nest as they’re very quiet and very tight sitters. If disturbed, they will vigorously defend their nest and their young, and have been known to strike at humans.

I’m always glad to see and hear these hawks as their population has declined, particularly during the 1950s through the 1970s, primarily owing to pesticides and heavy metal pollutants in the environment. In the 1980s their populations increased but not to their previous levels.

I hope you get a chance to get out to see and hear these and other birds that make up part of our Island’s natural community. Also, if you get a chance, go out and see the trillium and the rest of the spring flowers while they’re here.

P.S. Each year I keep track of the first day that a particular lilac in my yard opens a blossom. This year the opening date was Monday, May 17, the earliest in 10 years.

Trish Martin is a yeararound resident of Mackinac Island, has earned a master’s degree in botany from Central Michigan University, and owns Bogan Lane Inn.

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