I was just trying to help, I swear.
In fact, the primary directive in wildlife rehabilitation is: First, do no harm. But the indignant male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) I had just lifted out of a shoebox clearly interpreted my attempts to do a thorough but gentle intake exam as disrespectful. He spat a curse at me, and before I could blurt out an apology, he clamped that bright orange vice-like beak down on the webbing between my thumb and forefinger with more force than seemed plausible for a creature that weighed less than 2 ounces (57 g).
There we stood—me holding him and trying not to squeeze, him holding me and trying to squeeze with all of his might. I watched a blood blister forming beneath his pincer but there wasn’t much I could do about it. Any attempt to pry him from my hand risked adding to his injuries. I could only try to remain as still as possible, take deep breaths, and wait for him to let go… even though he appeared firmly cemented in place.
Cardinals are year-round residents in much of the continental U.S., from the East Coast westward into Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, parts of New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California. Familiar and conspicuous, with an easy-to-recognize crest and stop-light bright plumage, even in winter, this species is a perennial favorite of backyard feeder enthusiasts and beginning birders. This species is known to be a courageous defender of both offspring and territory, which may be why it was chosen as the mascot for a couple of national sports teams, and for seven different states.
Songbird beaks often provide a clue, or a blatant disclosure, of the owners’ food preferences, especially if the species is a fussy eater—for example, primarily nectar, or meat, or in this case, seeds. There’s more than one way to crack a hard shell and evolution has equipped other granivores with distinctive but equally effective beak shapes. Even so, the cardinal’s short, thick, cone-shaped bill is typical of an avian seed-eater.
Which is not to imply that these black-masked bad-ass birds demand a solely grain-based diet; approximately 10% of their calories come from fruits, flowers, maple sap, and invertebrates. Moreover, their young are fed insects almost exclusively until they’re old enough to leave the nest and digest seeds.
Hatchlings cardinals don’t start life equipped with the same vice-grip their elders wear on their faces (rather than in tool belts at the waist). Given the sibling rivalry for Mom and Dad’s attention whenever they bring home groceries, it’s probably for the best that the youngsters don’t have access to pinching pliers until after they fledge; pushing and shoving are dangerous enough when the nursery is a twig cup perched precariously in the crook of a tree branch.
Eventually, the baby redbirds bills do morph into their final adult size and shape, although for a while the their adolescent nose may look out of proportion to the rest of their head. Hey, being an awkward teen is all part of growing up. It builds character, or so they say.
With daily compulsory practice (at least if they want to eat) it doesn’t take long before those gawky bills are wielded like a finely crafted tool that quickly converts a feeder full of sunflower seeds into a pile of empty shells… or, very nearly brings a well-meaning wildlife biologist to her knees.
Back at the rehab center intake desk, the good Samaritans who had handed me the shoebox—a young mother and two small children—watched as I stood stock still, a bright red songbird pretending to be a pair of locking forceps stuck to my hand, struggling to hold back tears of pain (and four-letter words).
It’s been 20 years since I worked at the TWRC Wildlife Shelter in Houston, Texas. I’m not at all sure how long it took for the cardinal to release his grip… what feels like least a half-hour in memory was probably less than 3 minutes in real time. Luckily, there’s no scar on my hand, but my cardinal encounter did leave a lasting mark; the memory of that fierce feathered vice is riveted to my brain.
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[Thanks to the photographers who granted permission to use their photos, and to those who made their work available through the Creative Commons license: John Flannery, Fred Faulkner, Sasha Azevedo, Kenneth Cole Schneider, and John Flannery. © 2017 Next-Door Nature. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]