Reader Question on Cardinal eggs and Cornell Ornithology website

BIRD COLUMN FOR May 15, 2005

By Benjamin P. Burtt

SECTION 1. A Reader’s question: Can you tell me something about the nest and eggs of the cardinal? This question and the answer also appeared in the Post Standard today, May 15.

SECTION 2. The new “All About Birds” website from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology that provides for the public and school teachers everywhere, the Life History of 585 North American birds as well as material on attracting birds. There is no charge to look up information there.

SECTION 3. “The Birds of North America” This is a very detailed and complete life history of all 716 North American Birds. It is designed for scientists and for libraries at universities. To see any of the 18,000 pages of information you must be a subscriber.

SECTION 1. The material here was published in Stars Magazine of the Post Standard on May 15. It answers a reader’s question about the nest and eggs of the cardinal.

Mr. Burtt: I see cardinals around my home nearly every day. Can you tell me something about the nest and eggs of the cardinal? My book only covers the identification of birds. L.D. Cazenovia.

Caption: The male and female cardinal are shown here in this painting from Peterson’s “Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America”
(Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Co.)

Dear L.D.: The cardinal’s nest is generally well hidden and you do have to search for it. The male was probably singing near the nest earlier. That may help you locate it. Usually it will be hidden in any of the following locations: dense shrubbery, a tangle of vines, a briar tangle or a small coniferous tree where the branches are close together. The nest is generally 4 to 5 feet above the ground.

CAPTION:This photograph of the nest of a cardinal by Hal Harrison is from his book, “A Field Guide to Bird’s Nests of the Eastern United States”. Although published in 1975, this excellent book is up to date and still in print. ( Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Co. )

The nest itself is made of twigs and grasses and put together rather loosely. Fine grasses are placed in the center to produce a soft lining and to provide insulation. The photograph by Hal Harrison shows this loose construction. The inside of the shallow bowl is just under 3 inches in diameter. The eggs are a shiny white with brownish spots.

Where can a person look up the answers to a question about the details of the life of a particular bird such as the cardinals nest and eggs discussed above? Written material that deals with such matters is referred to as the “Life History” of the bird. In the past a scientist or an interested lay person had to refer to a set of books.

One excellent such 21 volume set which I have used for years is called, “The Life Histories of North American Birds”. These were authored by Arthur Cleveland Bent and many collaborators. The 21 volumes were published over the years 1919 to 1968. That is where I have always searched for information about any of the 716 species we have in North America.

Now, I would like to tell you about a wonderful new web site prepared by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology where you can look up the answers to many such questions about birds. It is almost like having your own private library without having to buy a single book! It is called “All About Birds”.

If you have a question like the one above concerning the cardinals nest and eggs, or you have a question about attracting birds, you can go to this site where a lot of information is available. I am always willing to answer questions for you, but having a place for you to look up answers yourself may speed things up for you.

What is this “All About Birds”?

It is a web site which is a sort of Bird Encyclopedia prepared by the The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

There you will find information about 585 North American birds. Given for each bird is its description, other birds that resemble it, the sounds it makes, where to find it, what it eats, its behavior, reproduction, conservation status and other names that is has been called.

The songs of each bird are available and you can hear them if you have the proper software. There are also video clips that can be viewed.

In addition to information about each bird, there are sections on attracting and feeding birds, building and placing nest boxes and landscaping for birds. This is a web site that is indeed, “All About Birds”.

It is available on line and it is free and Cornell has made this available to the public. If you had to purchase a set of books that contained all this information, it would be too expensive for most of us to buy. I don’t have exact figures, but I would estimate that if you had to print this, you would have about 3000 pages of material.

Continually updated.
One of the great advantages of having something like this online is that it will be updated as new things are learned about each bird. Imagine having a reference book on your shelf that automatically revises itself and is always up to date with the latest information!

School teachers and their students will find this to be a great source of information. The species accounts were assembled by Dr. Kevin McGowan and the other parts of the document were prepared by Maria Read and Anne James.

You can see “All About Birds” on the internet at once there, you click on All About Birds.

Readers note: The web address that I listed in the newspaper was not working on Sunday the 15th when the newspaper came out. The one shown here seems more reliable and takes you to the same place.

How to use “All About Birds”.

When you get to that site you will have a list of choices. If you wish to read about the life history of a particular bird, click first on the tab at the top called, “Bird Guide” and then you are presented a list of species and you select the one that you want.

On the other hand, if you wish to learn about such things as binoculars or attracting birds or making nest boxes, click on the desired topic in the Table on the left side of the page.

SECTION 3. Now I wish to tell you about another web site that has even more information about birds. It is called, “The Birds of North America” web site. If you are a scientist or a serious birder and wish to read almost everything known about a particular species, this is for you. This web site was also produced by The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. It is designed for the scientist doing research and for scientific libraries and universities about the country and the world. It is devoted entirely to the life history of the birds of North America. It does not deal with birdwatching or attracting birds.

Some 700 ornithologists contributed to it and it took over 10 years to put it together. It is the most comprehensive reference to the continent’s birdlife ever published.

During the rest of this discussion below I will often refer to Birds of North America as BNA.

How does it compare in its coverage of individual species to the “All About Birds” site discussed above in Section 2?

Whereas “All About Birds” contains about 3000 pages and covers 585 species, BNA has 18,000 pages and covers all 716 species.

For comparison, the discussion of the cardinal uses 5 pages in All About Birds, 15 pages in the old Bent series and 49 pages in BNA. However, for most people, “All About Birds” will give you all the information that you need.

“All About Birds” is free and available to the public while the BNA is accessible only if your have a paid subscription. Individual subscriptions are $40 per year. Institutions such as colleges, schools and libraries pay more depending on the number of people served by the institution. This was an expensive project and paying for a subscription is a reasonable thing to ask us to do.

I subscribe for I often need all the help I can get in answering questions and in preparing the bird column.

A Free Tour of Birds of North America
You can visit BNA and inspect the complete life history of six different species without charge. These are called “demos”( demonstrations). They are “free samples” that show you what information you can get if you become a subscriber. .

The one I think you would be most interested in inspecting right now is the discussion of the ivory-billed woodpecker. This includes the recent discovery that it is not extinct after all!

To visit BNA, go to

Once there you will see the following species listed as “DEMOS”
ivory-billed woodpecker
peregrine falcon
common goldeneye
semi-palmated sandpiper
yellow warbler
fox sparrow

Just single click on the name of the species on the web site that you wish to inspect and you will be taken to the life history just as if you had a paid subscription. These six are free, but if you wish to read the life history of any other of the 716 species you will need to subscribe.

However, there are a number of other links there that you can see without charge. These include recent bird news, species that have been recently revised and how to subscribe if you are an individual or a school or library.

Remember that there is no charge for using the “All About Birds” web site and you can look up any of the 585 species listed there as well as get information on birding, attracting birds, building nest boxes, planting for birds, etc. Everyone can use “All About Birds” and that will be a place to get the information that most people need.

As I explained in Section 2 above, you can go to that free web site by clicking on
Once you are there, click on “AllAboutBirds”
This is a wonderful gift to us all from the Laboratory of Ornithology and I am sure that you will wish to use it again and again.