There is a cardinal visiting our backyard feeder this winter. This is a first for us, as we have never had a cardinal in our backyard all the time we have lived in Muskoka. Though it's not a bright red male, (it's a brown-coloured female, or possibly an immature bird from last breeding season) it's still a treat to see it almost daily.
For campers living in southern Ontario a cardinal may not seem a big deal, as cardinals are common 'down there', though it is always special to spot these beautiful birds. But for Muskokans a cardinal is something of an event, as there aren't many this far north.
This could be changing. The region's annual Christmas Bird Count, which is held in December each year, recorded 22 cardinal sightings this season -- the highest since the count began almost 30 years ago. Is this a bubble or a trend?
Northern cardinals, despite the 'northern' in their name, are really southern birds, preferring warmer climes in the south-eastern and mid-western United States. The cardinals’ baseball team is in St. Louis, Missouri. So what are cardinals doing as far north as Muskoka, in the southern Canadian Shield?
Research into why cardinals are moving north indicates it has to do with habitat. Shy and secretive, cardinals favour dense thickets and shrubby areas, preferably near water. They also like to be near openings or edges, where they search for food and sing. This preference for 'edge' habitat may be why cardinals are expanding their range. As the country becomes more urbanized, the kind of habitat these songsters enjoy is being created in suburban backyards and parks.
Their expansion north has followed this urbanization trend. Cardinals first showed up in the New England states in the 1940s and 50s, which is when there was also a boom in suburban development.
Ontario's two Breeding Bird Atlases also bear this out, showing a marked increase in the province's cardinal population in the latest atlas of 2000-2005 compared to the first atlas of 1980-85.
It's exciting to see such a desirable bird becoming more common as their favoured habitat becomes more available.
But if a flock of Canada geese or ring-billed gulls showed up in my backyard I would not be as excited. And I'm not excited about the increase in the numbers of raccoons in my backyard, (campers in Toronto know all about that problem).
God has made all of His creation able to adapt as things change. Some, such as the whip-poor-will aren't as able to adapt, possibly because they are too specialized. Others do, and we find we can't always control which species gain from our developments. We try to regulate who invades our world, but it's hard to deal with ever smarter raccoons, and too many gulls and geese. We don't want them in our space, as it were, forgetting that in fact we are also in their space, and have invaded their world. Whose world is it anyways?!
Photograph by Eleanor Kee-Wellman.