Monday, February 11, 2008

Cardinals, Idaho and Winter

This coming weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Count, where people can count birds in their backyards (or other favorite areas) , creating a real-time snapshot of what birds are across the continent. Such "citizen science" can play an important role in bird conservation--providing indicators of species declines or range expansion. You only need 15 minutes. Learn how to participate.

If you're counting in your Idaho backyard, if past years were any indication, you'll likely see juncos, house finches and American goldfinches. You probably won't see the northern cardinal pictured above. The cardinal is currently not found here.

But will backyard birders some day regularly record cardinals? That is actually an open question.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, a welcome winter sight was several male cardinals sitting on a snow-covered pine branch. The bright reds, greens and whites created a beautiful contrast--a fact not lost on the holiday card industry.

But the cardinal is not a bird of winter. In fact, it much prefers mild temperatures, and prolonged winters once served to limit the cardinal's northern range.

Over the holidays, on jaunts around my in-laws' farm in northeast Iowa, I saw dozens of cardinals. Fifty years ago, cardinals were not found in the Midwest farther north than Missouri.

Why is this? Certainly milder winters have played a role, encouraging cardinals to check out areas farther to the north. But winters can still be tough in places like Iowa and Maine--states that now have year-round cardinal populations. As the cardinal's range expanded, it found hedgerows, small fields and backyard birdfeeders--all sources of seed that the cardinal needs to survive. The milder winters encouraged cardinal movement, but the new habitat is why they stayed.

The cardinal still does not like the cold, though. My mom told me just last evening of cardinals sitting hunched up, covering their legs with their wings, due to the blustery cold Pennsylvania is experiencing.

Will the cardinal spread to Idaho? Other birds have spread here, either naturally or with human help--house finches and valley quail will feature prominently in this weekend's backyard bird counts, but were not originally found in the state. Cardinals are found in southern Arizona, so it is conceivable--although the desert country and mountains would seem to serve as a barrier.

Ornithologists can't be everywhere, so your own observations can genuinely help track changes--like a bird species moving north. Join the Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend, and make a difference for our feathered friends. --Matt Miller

Photo courtesy of Tom Grey.

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