Dedicated To Our Baby Cardinals

cardinal bond t-shirt artworkOur first design from New Plumage: Cardinal Bond

Our first New Plumage shirt design is dedicated to our favorite baby cardinals and their amazing parents.

I drew them beak to beak, hidden in the trees, to show the special bond they share. That's why we've named the shirt Cardinal Bond. Here is a look into the hidden lives of our cardinal friends and the wonderful days we've spent watching them raise the next generations.

Our yard is packed with cardinals. We have three pairs nesting and each one has successfully fledged two broods this year already! The sixth brood is fledging today. We've been watching this particular little family especially closely because they like to nest just a couple feet outside the window of our tiny house.

We were there in late April, the day mom started her first nest of the season. We saw the pitiful structure of 3 twigs as she started the base. We watched her build it for days, working hard in the mornings, resting in the evenings. She would break off small twigs, often the very one she was standing on, weave them into the nest, then smush her breast into the nest and wiggle her belly and feet around until everything fit her perfectly.

Very soon after the nest was complete she began laying eggs. One each morning for three days. Here she is on the day she laid her third egg.

cardinal eggsMother cardinal on the morning she laid her third egg.

Lucky for us we could see down into the nest from our upstairs window so we could take photos without disturbing her.

She incubated the eggs for 13 days, through near-freezing nights and pouring rain, occasionally singing softly to her mate to bring her a snack.

Female cardinal incubating eggs

He watched over her carefully and chipped angrily at anyone who came too close and occasionally brought her treats.

male cardinalMale cardinal singing his territorial song

Finally, on day 13 we noticed mom looking under her breast. Something was happening. An hour later she got up and gave us our first good look. All three babies had hatched! (This was May 9.)  Both parents immediately began the search for bugs.

We've put a lot of work into growing native flowers, shrubs, and trees that support a wide range of native insects. That's the main reason our small yard can crank out so many baby birds every years. The vast majority of terrestrial birds feed insects to their young, whether the adults are insect eaters or not. Adult cardinals primarily eat wild seeds and fruits (which we also grow in abundance) but when it's time to feed the babies, the hunt for insects is on.

Almost immediately, mom and dad began stuffing little caterpillars down the baby cardinals' throats. Here's dad with a bright green caterpillar feeding the one-day-old baby cardinals.

male cardinal feeding one-day-old baby cardinalsDay 1: Father cardinal feeding one-day-old hatchlings

Seconds later the hatchling turned around and offered up his rear end. Without hesitation dad reached down and grabbed the emerging white blob known as a fecal sac. This tidy little package of poop was immediately gulped down by the father cardinal (effectively becoming a fecal snack).

male cardinal eating fecal sacDay 1: Male cardinal eating fecal sac.

Mom and dad ate the fecal sacs for a couple days and later simply carried them away. The theory is that the baby's digestive tracts aren't very efficient the first few days so the fecal sacs still contain lots of good nutrients for the hard-working parents.

On day 2 the hatchlings were still mostly naked with bits of downy gray fluff. Their large, bulging, eyes were still almost entirely closed.

cardinal hatchlings 2 days oldDay 2: Hatchlings still naked and eyes closed.

Whenever an adult would land in the tree, the vibrations would send the hatchlings' open mouths into the air with their big heads wobbling around on tiny necks. Here's daddy with another meal feeding the 2-day old hatchlings.

what do baby cardinals eatDay 2: Dad feeding baby cardinals. One hatchling's eye is just starting to open!

 By day 3 the hatchlings began peeping softly. You'd have to be very close to the nest to hear the tiny, high-pitched chipping that began as soon as an adult arrived. Now each of their eyes were open a tiny slit. They were getting their first look at the world around them.

3 day old cardinal nestlingsDay 3: Hatchling's eyes are beginning to open, and starting to peep.

I know it may look like only dad is doing the feeding, but that's because I tended to take photos in the morning when mom liked to take her break. The rest of the time they shared the feeding equally.

On day 4 the sheaths of the emerging wing feathers were clearly visible, along with other tiny feathers erupting in rows.

day 4: cardinal nestlingsDay 4: The shafts of the wing feathers are clearly visible.

 Day 4 cardinal babies getting fed
Day 4: Male cardinal feeding nestlings.

 Cardinal fecal sac
Day 4: Father cardinal removing fecal sac.

 day 5 cardinal nestlings
Day 5: Mother cardinal stuffing what looks like a moth into a nestling's mouth

Cardinal nest and cardinal familyDay 5: Mother and father cardinal feeding the nestlings together

cardinal feather developmentDay 5: a closer look at the wing feathers still in the sheath. Notice throat feathers coming in on nestling on left and un-removed fecal sac to right.

 By Day 6 the peeping had become quite loud and the babies were growing rapidly, filling the nest. Tiny feathers became visible over more of their body and the wing feather shafts were long and prominent

6 day old cardinal nestlingsDay 6: Feathers growing in nicely.

 day 7 baby cardinal
Day 7: Starting to look like birds!

 day 8 cardinal development
Day 8: Downy feathers begin to cover the wings. Note the flying insect just deposited in the nestling's mouth.

 Day 8 cardinal auricular feathers development
Day 8: Notice how the "auricular" feathers covering the ear opening are more developed in the nestling to the left than the one in the center.

On the morning of day 9 the baby cardinals seemed to have miraculously feathered overnight. Nearly their entire bodies were covered with small downy feathers and the primary wing feathers had emerged from their shafts. Only their heads still seemed somewhat bald.

day 9 cardinal nestlings ready to fledgeDay 9: The nestlings have feathered miraculously overnight and the nest suddenly seems kind of cramped.

Now, with their eyes fully opened, they seemed to have a permanent grumpy face as they examined their world and waited for their next meal. That's when the most developed nestling decided the nest was getting too small. Suddenly he was standing on the edge of the nest (I'm just randomly choosing a gender here.)

cardinals fledge at 9 days oldDay 9: The first nestling becomes a fledgling. But you look too small to fly!!! (Notice the tiny bit of red appearing on the leading edge of the wing)

Cristina and I immediately panicked. Oh no! They're way too young! What is he doing! We did some quick research and learned that this was within the normal age range that cardinals fledge from the nest. But he's so undeveloped! How is he going to fly?!

Then he decided he was ready for the world. He hopped onto the branch and there was no looking back. He hopped again. And again.

Cardinal fledgling day 1First cardinal fledgling at 9 days old. Three minutes out of the nest and clinging awkwardly to a branch, boldly flapping his pitiful little wings.

His two siblings watched from the nest and thought, "what the hell are you doing?" One inched closer to the edge of the nest.

cardinals ready to fledge from the nest
The two remaining nestlings watch their sibling with interest.

The first fledgling decided he was ready. It was time to fly like a bird. With a few earnest practice flaps he launched himself into the air. But his feathers weren't up to the challenge yet and he plummeted to the ground. Undaunted, he ran into a thick clump of jewelweed.

Mom and Dad were getting more and more stressed throughout the proceedings. Each was chipping anxiously and circling the area, hopping from branch to branch. Now they flew to the jewel weed and coaxed the grounded fledgling out with urgent chips. He followed them out and hopped into a low branch. They urged him upward and he followed. Up and up he went until he was back at nest height.

Now he steadied himself and new that this flying business would take a bit more time. Instead he focused on hopping around from branch to branch until he found a comfortable perch and began begging for food again.

Cardinal fledglingThe fledgling settles in on a cozy perch in a cherry tree.

Mom and dad geared up for the most stressful stage of their family life, keeping track of fledglings in their most vulnerable state. Now they visited fledgling #1 perched 15 feet away from the nest and the two remaining nestlings, keeping everyone fed. Cristina and I relaxed and went about our business.

Four hours later, fledgling number 2 was perched on the edge of the nest! Here we go! She went through the same process. Hopping to branches, getting up the nerve, taking the leap, and plummeting to the ground. But up she went as well, branch by branch, this time in a different direction to another clump of shrubby trees. 

Now the cardinal parents were frantic with their kids in three different positions. But they diligently made the rounds and kept each one of them fed.

cardinal fledgling getting fed by adultFledgling number 2 gets a snack from dad while two daddy longlegs watch from inches away.

The final sibling stayed firmly in the bottom of the nest looking tiny and fragile with no interest in seeing the outside world. For the first and last time in his life he would spend a night alone in the nest.

The next morning the rain poured down and we worried how our little friends were faring. The last baby was still in the nest like a little drowned rat. But his parents were working hard keeping track of everyone. Finally, at midday, the last nestling decided he had no choice but to follow his siblings. He climbed out shakily and made his way to a branch less than a foot from the nest.

final fledgling cardinalDay 10: The final fledgling leaves the nest in the rain. Note how the fledglings have virtually no tail feathers!

 After we were sure each fledgling was safely up in the trees we let them go about their business. The following days we could only track down one or two fledglings at a time by their high pitched peeps or the busy feedings of parents. But within four days we lost track of them completely. 

Just five days after the last baby fledged, we discovered the mother cardinal starting another nest in the same shrub. We were a bit shocked, but we knew that father cardinals took over feeding the fledglings while the mother begins her next nest. She had wasted no time.

She seemed to come and go from that nest, never quite committing to it. We watched our other two cardinal pairs raise various broods. Then she started a third nest just feet away from our house at head height. This time we left her alone and didn't take any photos. She laid three more eggs, she incubated them, they hatched, they fed. And today it happened.

At noon a nestling was standing on the edge of the nest. And the cycle began again. 

We're so excited that our favorite little family has successfully fledged yet another brood. We've had at least 18 baby cardinals born in our little 3/4 acre yard this year already, and some of our pairs may even build a third nest. 

Here's to our little cardinal friends. May you have many more babies in our yard and long happy lives!

 Check out our Cardinal Bond design on a men's t-shirt or on a women's t-shirt.

Click to see the Cardinal Bond Women's Tee


Click to see the Cardinal Bond Men's Tee


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