Nov 15, 2008

Northern Cardinals.Up Close and Personal with the Bird Lady of Ft. Wright

“If you’d have told me I would be watching birds six months ago, I would have told you that’s crazy,” said Shelly Sandfoss of Sentinel Point in Ft. Wright.  Now husband Jeff refers to Shelly as the “Bird Lady.”  It all came about because of an artificial Christmas tree.


“I’ve always had a wreath on the front door,” said Shelly.  “I did not put a wreath up this year because finches always built a nest in the wreath and would then fly into the house when the door was opened.  This year I just left my artificial evergreen on the front porch for decoration.”


To Shelly’s great surprise, a different bird nested on her front porch.  “I noticed this bird and thought Oh My Gosh, there’s no wreath on the door so they decided to use the Christmas tree,” said Shelly.  It turns out that Shelly dissuaded finches from nesting on her porch wreath, and in turn persuaded Northern Cardinals to nest in her imitation Christmas tree.


Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are named for the Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church who wear distinctive red robes and caps.  With its striking good looks it maintains the record for popularity as a state bird, holding that title in seven states (including Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana).  


Originally birds of the southeast, cardinals have expanded their range over the past 100 years.  In 1886 cardinals were found only occasionally north of the Ohio River.  Now they can be found as far north as Maine and Southern Canada.  Habitat changes and our joy of bird feeding have served the cardinal well.  Interestingly, males with a brighter red color feed at higher rates and have greater reproductive success than duller colored males.  Cardinals are non-migratory and usually live within a mile of where they were born.


The female builds a cup nest in a well-concealed shrub or low tree; made of thin twigs, bark strips and grasses.  “She built the nest in less than 36 hours, a beautiful constructed nest,” said Shelly.  “She started by making a top ring, laying that out first, and then constructed the inside.  She built it totally backyards of how I think a nest should be built.”  Mama cardinal knew what she was doing though.  Two days after the nest was built she laid 4 blue-green eggs with brown speckles.


An avid photographer, Shelly was able to capture it all on camera out her front window.  “They were textbook cardinals, right on schedule,” said Shelly.  “Only three of the four eggs hatched.  They incubated their eggs for 12 days, and the young were in the nest another 12 days before fledging.  Newborns sleep a lot.  That first week they’re not eating as much, they’re sleeping a lot and Mom is keeping them warm.  On day four they opened their eyes.”



“After about a week she’s constantly feeding them,” continued Shelly.  “She’s feeding them at least every half-hour.  Mom eats lots of seed from the feeder, especially sunflower.  But she does not feed the babies seed, only insects and caterpillars.  When she’s coming in to feed, she lands in a tree about 15-feet away.  She checks her surroundings first to make sure the coast is clear.  She cheeps to them, they recognize her call and cheep back and get ready to be fed.” 


“One morning I went out to get the paper at 8:00 am and one was missing,” said Shelly.  “I immediately thought the cat up the street got one.  Then I realized it was day-12, the day to fledge.”  Shelly watched the events unfold for the next 4 hours.  “The two remaining chicks would practice lifting their wings while the mother called to them.  By 9:30 am, after getting up the nerve and practicing its takeoff, the next one flew from a branch on the Christmas tree to a Japanese maple.  Two hours later, while also taking care of the two other babies on the ground, the mother finally coaxed the third baby into flying. By nighttime they had all moved to the back of the house to an evergreen.”


One would think that’s the end of a very happy story.  However, to Shelly’s great delight, less than a month later mama cardinal again built a nest in Shelly’s artificial Christmas tree.  With the babies due to fledge around July 10th, Shelly’s watching and photographing as events unfold.  “She built the second nest exactly horizontal to the first nest,” said Shelly.  “Once I laid eyes on her, I knew it was the same female.  When you take hundreds of pictures of a bird, you not only recognize her calls and her stares, but also her markings.”


When asked if she was going to keep the artificial Christmas tree on the porch, Shelly replied, “Heck yeah, I’m going to keep that tree out there.  Next to giving birth, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever watched.  I never really had an appreciation for birds because I never saw the circle of life like I have with this mother bird.  It was so cool to watch how the birds communicated, how the mother spent every minute of every day taking care of her babies.” 


Shelly, with her excellent photography skills, has further intentions.  “My fourth-grade teacher at St. Agnes, Pam Summe, is now back teaching fourth-grade at St. Agnes again,” said Shelly.  “Sometime this summer we’ll write a children’s story book using these pictures that we’d like to have published.”


Contact Gayle at her website for nest boxes at or


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