A year or two ago we bought a clear plastic bird feeder and attached it outside our family room window. The idea was to observe our avian friends at close hand, to admire their grace and beauty and appreciate their swift and incredibly intricate landing maneuvers.

We loved watching the delicate way they used their tongues to turn the seeds in their mouths and their beaks to crush them to get at the nuts.

The male cardinal in our bird feeder. Credit: Les Jacobson

It was a wonderful education into these ubiquitous flying creatures, our lifelong if mostly unobserved and underappreciated aerial friends. How marvelous to see them so close, within a few feet.

The primary visitors to our bird feeder are local sparrows and a pair of cardinals, male and female, whom we believe have long nested in our backyard.

House sparrows, we learn, are native to and abundant in Illinois. They are, to my taste, rather dull-looking birds, even with their striated gray and brown plumage.

The large, long-tailed cardinal is the state bird of Illinois, and the male cardinal is one of the most beautiful birds in the avian constellation, with a brilliant red crown and chest and black mask and throat.

Some quick research turned up a few fun facts about Cardinalis cardinalis, the family of new world birds sometimes known as cardinal-grosbeaks:

  • The name dates back hundreds of years, when American colonists noted the similarity between the male’s scarlet plumage and the red silk biretta and vestments of Catholic cardinals.
  • Aside from Illinois, cardinals are the state bird in Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.
Sorry, Mr. Salty. Credit: New Berlin H.S. Twitter
  • Many sports teams are named for cardinals, such as the Chicago Cubs’ rival St. Louis Cardinals as well as the Arizona Cardinals football team. In addition, many college teams use the name as a mascot, including Wesleyan University and University of Louisville. In Illinois there are the Sidney High School Cardinals and the Chrisman High School Cardinals, certainly better nicknames than the Appleknockers of Cobden and the Pretzels of Freeport and New Berlin.
  • Cardinals are often the first birds to use a feeder in the morning and the last in the dusk of evening. Experts believe this may be because there are fewer birds to share the seeds with at those times.

Amateur though I am, on this last point I must disagree. Cardinals don’t need to worry about sharing. That’s because they don’t share.

With their large stature and intimidating manners, cardinals will menace and fight off any sparrows or other birds that dare to land in the bird feeder when they are feeding. Cardinals are, in a word, bullies.

We found this behavior somewhat amusing – and also a little unsettling. But as Tennyson famously poetized, nature is “red in tooth and claw.” Our feathered friends, like other animals, are fighting for survival – and sharing is not an evolutionary trait that much benefits them.

Squirrel skedaddling from our bird feeder. Credit: Les Jacobson

Just as I was adjusting to this bullying behavior, we observed an even bigger bully.

Our backyard squirrels found a way to hang on to the window ledge and – by virtue of a spectacular back flip that would do an Olympian gymnast proud – land in the bird feeder, scattering any birds inside.

This was too much! I have taken to training our grand-dog to bark at the offending rodents (which doesn’t work) and to bang on the window, which sends the incumbent squirrel in a panicky dive into the bushes and onto the sidewalk – and sends me into a fit of maniacal laughter.

Forgive me, animal lovers, but I love scaring the big bullies.

I guess that makes me the biggest bully of them all.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently four consecutive Northern...

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  1. I find quite the opposite. My cardinals, especially the females are easily driven off the feeders by most ant small bird. I think it is the structure of your feeder that makes the cardinal feel so secure. I’m an open feeder they are less bully and more being bullied.

  2. House sparrows we’re introduced and are not native to Illinois or any where in North America. They are considered an invasive species and kill other native birds e.g. bluebirds.

  3. Hello! House Sparrows are, in fact, not native to Illinois or to the US at all! They are invasive, introduced by humans multiple times over the centuries. This information is included in the link in the article, but is incorrectly stated by the author.