Sheltered Islander: Foraging for Food on Shelter Island

Cardinal for Sheltered Islander
Photo: Len Jellicoe/iStock/Thinkstock

As Shark Week comes to a close, I’ve been thinking that it’s funny how fascinated we are with other creatures. We watch nature programs by the hour, learning about the habitats and habits of animals all over the world, and we will still watch squirrels spinning around on the trunk of a tree or a bunny dashing across a lawn.

There are four birds that seem to meet on my porch every morning—a barn swallow with one eye; another with one leg and a limp; one that’s always puffed up; and a brilliant red cardinal. This morning I saw two little brown bunnies hopping along in the yard. They stopped and the cardinal and puffy bird flew over and landed in front of them. The birds were chirping, their heads bobbing, and the bunnies nose-wiggling so much that you’d think they were conversing about life and the weather.

“Good morning, Betty! Who is your friend here?”

“Hey, Maxie! Rhonda, this cardinal is my old pal, Max, and his pal, Kevin. We just came by to see if she’s tossing any rabbit food out yet. It’s really important to set up you now, you know, before all the good begging spots are gone.”

“So true. Me and the boys just got her going on tossing out the good songbird seed last week. I know I saw some lettuce and apple slices around here a few days ago.”

“Oh, I bet that was Brenda. She’s always the first out. Drives me crazy, she is so organized. You should see the inside of her home. Her floors are packed down so tight a gopher couldn’t scratch it. And little alcoves for food storage arranged to reduce decay rates, I just don’t know where she finds the time.”

“So, Miss Betty, are you expecting this season?”

“Of course, Maxie. Me and Rhonda both. “

“And who are the proud papas?”

“Max, you ask me that every year and every year I have to remind you that, unlike cardinals, we don’t mate for life. The only thing we know for sure is that we’re the mother.”

“How will we know where to get food, Betty?”

“That’s where bird friends like Maxie and Kevin come in handy. They scout for flaggie plants.”

“Yup, we fly high and spot the plants that look like flags. They pop up overnight in straight lines with thin white string holding them together. They have thick, flat, short stems, with pretty, but inedible yellow petals that look like flags. Wherever the flaggie plants appear, delicious plants follow.”

“Amazing! I love Shelter Island, Betty. To think, I was so afraid to make the leap last year.”


“Rhonda was in a rabbit hutch. Her brother put in an application for her with the Rabbit Rapid Release Program. She met the criteria, especially with her level of food pellet dependency, and I agreed to sponsor her. The program dug out a whole new wing for my burrow. It’s even nicer than my space. She could stuff two litters in there and never feel crowded.”

“Sounds nice, Rhonda. If my Tessie has three eggs this year, I don’t know where we’ll put the third one. I’ll have to tie it off the side of the nest in one of those plastic pudding cups I see in the garbage nowadays. Ahhh, kids. Can’t live with them, can’t roll them out of the nest…”

“Well, you girls have a nice day. We’ll let you know if we see any of your favorite plants.”

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