Ottawa·Photos

Noisy, showy cardinals reproducing more thanks to your birdseed

Boredom-busting backyard bird feeders have boosted the already growing cardinal population during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to local experts.

Backyard bird feeders stuffed with seeds helping boost population in Ottawa

What does a northern cardinal sound like?

5 months ago
0:32
With more people spending time at home during the pandemic, backyard birdfeeders have gotten a boost — and northern cardinals are making the most of it. 0:32

Boredom-busting backyard bird feeders have boosted the already growing cardinal population in Ottawa during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to local birders.

Local bird counts show the population of northern cardinals — or in unimaginative Latin nomenclature, Cardinalis cardinalis — was already rising before the pandemic hit.

Then isolated families began sprucing up their backyards for themselves and for hungry birds looking for an easy meal.

"More people were feeding birds last winter," said Ottawa naturalist Michael Runtz. "Costco was being sold out of sunflower seeds regularly, and that's unusual.

"If the females are well-fed, they produce more eggs and ... more young."

Photographer Marc Lachance gets a kick out of watching cardinals courting in his backyard, and he makes sure to stock his bird feeders with their favourite snacks. (Marc Lachance)

Bird feeders are why cardinals came to Ottawa in the first place, according to Runtz, who said the showy, non-migratory birds arrived in the 1940s and 1950s and survived Canadian winters thanks to full bellies.  

The annual Christmas bird count, where volunteers report the number and species of birds they spot on a given day in a specific region, notched its first northern cardinal sighting in 1965.

By 1994, 226 were counted; by 2019, the count was 592.

Runtz credited a combination of climate change and food availability for the bird's expanding habitat.

Cardinal populations can grow quickly with more than one clutch of young in a season, which is why you'll hear males showing off their pipes deeper into the season, looking for a second date.

"Birdsong is one reason that females choose males as mates, based on how well they sing," said Runtz. 

Ottawa naturalist Mike Runtz finds the muted colours of a female northern cardinal more pleasing than the showy male. (Marc Lachance)

'Life' in your own backyard

Ottawa's Marc Lachance, an avid amateur bird photographer, has noticed an uptick in cardinals through his living room window in the McKellar Park neighbourhood.

"I've lived in Ottawa since 1985, and at that time, there were almost no cardinals," said Lachance, a newly retired statistician.

Lachance says he stocks his backyard bird feeders with cardinals' favourites: sunflower chips and safflower seeds — the latter of which squirrels do not like.

A male northern cardinal is seen here during the spring in Ottawa. (Marc Lachance)

Lachance has spotted the males bringing seeds to the females, as if to show them they'd be good providers, as an enticement to mate and set up a nest.

One of his favourite photographs shows a beak-to-beak delivery of seeds, which looks like the birds are exchanging "a French kiss," said Lachance.

"The pandemic has made me realize how much life I have in my own backyard," he said.

The mating ritual of the northern cardinal was captured by Ottawa's Marc Lachance in his backyard. (Marc Lachance)

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