Thom Smith | Naturewatch: Flocks of cardinals at feeders not that uncommon

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Q: I recently noticed something I hadn't seen before. On March 11, I saw a flock of cardinals ground feeding beneath our bird feeder in Pittsfield. There were five males and a female. Is it unusual for cardinals to flock like this?

— Florian, Pittsfield

A: While it may be unusual for you and me to see that many cardinals at one time, for others isn't. I have received comments from Naturewatch followers reporting that many and even as many as 10 from time to time.

There is more than one reason for this, and the first that comes to mind at this season may be the beginning of general dispersal of birds born last season that are looking for their "first home" or territory. These birds have probably found a mate. After the breeding season, some cardinals remain on their summer territory all winter long, only dispersing as spring is in the air. Another thought is, during winter, it is less unusual to see 10 or even more cardinals sharing the same feeder(s). This is a temporary aggregation and less a flock like we see in cedar waxwings or goldfinches. It is a truce, sometimes consisting of pairs, having fewer territorial instincts and don't feel the urge to jealously guard their home territory, when food is a priority and readily available.

Q: In [ last week's] column, you describe that all-too-familiar visual of our native robin hopping across the lawn and cocking its head searching for worms. My questions, which I've been asked before, are" "Is the robin cocking his head to see the worm or to listen for it?" And, if it's to see the worm, what does it tell us about its "sideways monocular vision.

— Michael, Great Barrington

A: I can always count on you for good questions. It was once thought that robins found the worms with keen eyesight, and I suppose one would not pass up one in clear view. However, they use their hearing predominantly, according to some studies, sight, according to at least one convincing study that I am aware of, while yet more studies conclude they use both sight and sound. Sight is especially true when eating small invertebrates that may be on lawn flora, as it was in the northern states following the Ice Age some 10,000 years ago when most native earth worms disappeared. It wasn't until after Europeans arrived on our shores with Old World earthworms that spread that robins' diets included them in the northern states and Canada. As for a robin's monocular vision, as well as other songbirds, when it looks at an object, it does so with one eye. Hawks and owls have binocular vision with eyes far enough in front to make use of both.

Q: Lately, I have been seeing owls in the day. Now, I know they are not as nocturnal as we think and they are active both day and night. But to see one, in my opinion, is quite stunning and is usually a rarity (for me anyway) — unless one is walking through the woods. I have seen three so far in the past two months — one was on a street sign and one was perched on a telephone wire overlooking the road I was driving on — which is a commonly used road with moderate traffic. I used to think owls were fairly skittish of people and their activities. Not anymore? I usually see hawks patrolling this area and was wondering if the presence of owls would be threatening to them. Or, perhaps there is enough food for everyone!

— Kelly, Pittsfield

A: The short answer is barred owls feed mostly on mice and voles, and when significant snow is on the ground, pickings are few.

This means that if an owl is hungry it will hunt both day and night or at the least station itself near a bird feeder (or in a yard near a feeder) that will attract mice after dark.

When food is again readily available, you will only see one from time to time sleeping the day away. (Postscript: This question was submitted when we had snow.)

FINAL UPDATE

While I continue to welcome black squirrel sightings, this will be the last scheduled update showing the latest additional reports.

VERMONT — Sunderland (2), Putney (1, 1), Manchester (3, 3), Bennington (1), West Dummerston (3). (Read the brief history of Dummerston in Wikipedia; I found it most interesting.)

BERKSHIRE COUNTY — Williamstown (2), Sheffield (1, 2), Becket (1), Lanesborough (2), Housatonic (1), Cheshire (1, 2)

ELSEWHERE: Greenfield (6)

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch@live.com or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.

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