Ask the Bird Experts: Do Cardinals Mate for Life?

Our bird experts answer your questions about cardinals, cedar waxwings in winter, and birdbaths.

Do cardinals mate for life? Why aren’t birds visiting my birdbath? Are cedar waxwings around in winter? What is this weird bird in my backyard?!

Each month, Birds & Blooms readers send in their burning questions to birding experts, Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman, who are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world.

Got a bird question for Kenn and Kimberly? Submit your questions here! They may appear here or in a future issue of the magazine.

Question: Do cardinals mate for life? I always see a pair together at the feeders. —Bridget Stoede of Spooner, Wisconsin

Kenn and Kimberly: The best answer would be to say that cardinals frequently mate for life—almost as often as humans do! Some pairs of cardinals do stay together all year long in their nesting territory. In other cases, the birds leave the territory and join a winter flock, but the same pair is likely to go back to the same nesting area the following spring. Some cardinal pairs do break up and look for new mates, sometimes even during the nesting season. And if one member of the pair dies, the survivor will quickly look for a new mate. (Read more: 6 Ways to Attract More Cardinals)

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photo credit: John Pizniur (B&B reader)
photo credit: John Pizniur (B&B reader) Cedar waxwing

Question: A few winters ago, I spotted cedar waxwings eating the fruit off my Cleveland pear trees. Is it normal for them to be here? —Anna Zimmerman of Avenue, Maryland

Kenn and Kimberly: Cedar waxwings are wanderers, and they may show up anywhere in southern Canada or the lower 48 states, including the coastal plain of Maryland. Classic nomads, they almost always travel in flocks, seeking out trees and shrubs heavy with ripe berries or small fruits. It’s normal for them to be in your area, but it’s also normal for them to disappear for months at a time. The timing of their travel is very unpredictable, but if you keep an eye on those Cleveland pear trees when the fruits are ripe, you might see waxwings again. (Read more: How to Attract Waxwings with Berries)

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photo credit: Gary Wyrick (B&B reader)
photo credit: Gary Wyrick (B&B reader)

Question: This bird knocked itself out on my window. What is it? —Gary Wyrick of Scottville, Michigan

Kenn and Kimberly: That’s an unusual find! It’s a northern shrike—a bird that spends the summer in northern Canada and Alaska, appearing in Michigan only as a scarce winter visitor, and not usually seen close to houses. If you look closely at the photo, you can see a hooked tip on the bill. Shrikes are predatory songbirds, and sometimes they catch and eat small birds such as sparrows. It’s possible that this northern shrike was chasing some other bird and not watching where it was going when it ran into your window. (Read more: Which Shrike Am I Seeing?)

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photo credit: a-mblomma/Pixabay
photo credit: a-mblomma/Pixabay Sparrow at birdbath

Question: I purchased a birdbath and am disappointed in the amount of birds that have visited it. What’s the problem? Do birds get water from snow or could my bath be too close to the house? —Randy Childers of Fairmont, Minnesota

Kenn and Kimberly: Some birds do eat snow, so they may not have to visit baths to drink water very often. They’ll stay longer if they’re bathing, but birds can be fussy about using birdbaths. Often, the basin of the bath is simply too deep. If your birdbath has a basin that’s more than an inch or so deep, adjust the depth by adding a layer of pea gravel to the bottom. The gravel makes it shallower and provides a nice surface for the birds to stand on while they bathe. If you don’t think depth is the issue, your birdbath might indeed be too close to the house. (Read more: How to Help Birds in Extremely Cold Weather)

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photo credit: skeeze/Pixabay
photo credit: skeeze/Pixabay

Question: We noticed two of the wild turkeys in our yard had tail feathers missing that are now growing back. Is that normal? —Andre Floen of Pine Haven, Wyoming

Kenn and Kimberly: Tail feathers wear out, so it’s normal for turkeys to replace them once a year in a process called molt. A couple tail feathers drop out and new ones grow in their place, but the turkey won’t lose the next pair of feathers until the previous ones are nearly full-grown. Usually, the gap in feathers isn’t noticeable. Sometimes a turkey will lose many of them at once, in an accident or narrow escape from a predator. When that happens, the missing feathers grow back in at the same time. (Read more: Why Birds Molt and How to Spot It)

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard.