Friday, February 6, 2009

Zombie Cardinals?

If you pay attention, you can learn something new every day. And today, I learned that cardinals will eat meat. Yep, they are vicious killers and should be watched carefully around foo-foo dogs,
kitties and such. No, I am totally making that up. But, like many animals, they are opportunists; if food is available, they will snack away.

Nice photo or mug shot? Pic by my big bro, Charles Creamer.

I love puzzles and weird nature stuff, so when Brad Bumgardner posted a story on IN-bird, a birdwatching listserv in Indiana, my interest was peaked. Theresa Rody had discovered a mouse that had fallen into a fish tank at the Salamonie Interpretive Center and drowned. She threw the dead mouse outside into the snow.

Is that snow on this female cardinals beak or bits of brains? Pic by Charles Creamer.

Later in the day, when she and Lynnanne Fager looked out the bird window to see what species were there, they witnessed an amazing thing. Right out of a horror movie for rodents, a Northern Cardinal had grabbed the dead mouse and was eating its head. Now I have heard of zombies eating heads and brains and such, but not our chipper little cardinals! You can view the photos here.

Checking a few sources, I found out this is not the norm, but not unheard of. Birds of North America Online does not mention cardinals eating mice. They eat 29% animal matter, mostly insects, and also spiders, slugs, snails, centipedes and bivalves. 71% of their diet is plant based, mainly berries and seeds. They referenced a paper by W. L McAtee from 1908 called the Food Habits of Grosbeaks.

Don't get any closer, junco, or I'll pierce your eyes and devour them!
Pic by Charles Creamer.
Digging a little more, I checked Bent. Good ol' Arthur Cleveland Bent and his Life Histories of North American Birds. He didn't let me down. He referenced the same paper by McAtee, but added "He mentions that a male cardinal was seen eating a field mouse." Apparently, the BNA didn't have any other collaborating references, so they left it out. I now wonder if cardinals only scavenge on mice that are already dead, or if they will go for live ones as well. Sounds like a research project for a willing grad student. Nature never ceases to amaze!


heidi said...

Ah, yes, the protein hunt =) When I worked on window-killed birds during college, people reported squirrels eating hummingbirds... repeatedly. I wasn't surprised at the event, so much as the shock of the people who had no idea that Innocent Fuzzy Tail would viciously devour dead Mister Ruby Throat. Amazing what we see when we look.

Janet Creamer said...

Hi Heidi,

Some additional comments on the cardinal and their feeding habits. On IN-bird there has been reported one cardinal carrying off a dead shrew, a few cardinals eating ground beef that was put out for vultures at the zoo and many cases of them eating suet. It might be more common than we think. I mirror your comment;it is amazing what we see when we really look!

Heather said...

My husband discovered your post when I called him to share the bizarre thing I had just seen - a cardinal chasing a mouse across the road. When I drove past, the cardinal took off, and the mouse started back across, into the path of my tires, so I may have made things easier for the bird, but I couldn't tell.

Janet Creamer said...

Fascinating, Heather! I have never seen a cardinal chase a mouse, but will look for this behavior.