Speaking of Nature: Cardinal vs. mantis

  • The mantis (on the left) is standing its ground against this male northern cardinal. The insect has its arms and wings raised in an attempt to look big and scary, but 0.2 seconds later the cardinal delivered a bite that spelled the beginning of the end for the mantis. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

For the Recorder
Published: 8/28/2022 4:04:03 PM
Modified: 8/28/2022 4:00:13 PM

There had been 15 to 20 birds all around me for the better part of an hour and I was beginning to think that I might have to hire an air traffic controller for the air space immediately surrounding my Thinking Chair. There were 5 fledgling tufted titmice, 5 to 6 black-capped chickadees, 5 to 6 song sparrows and then a handful of other interesting birds like downy woodpeckers, common yellowthroats and black-throated green warblers. The titmice, chickadees and song sparrows were what I call, “the friendlies” and they were so numerous that it was a challenge to notice anyone else. Repeated chickadee visits to the top of my head only made the scene more chaotic … in the most wonderful way.

Then, all of a sudden, the birds seemed to evaporate into thin air. I had heard a chickadee let out a particularly high-pitched sound that was also very quiet and this often means that some sort of danger had been spotted. The other birds seemed to understand that this was important and they just melted into the underbrush. The only exception to this rule was an adult male northern cardinal that seemed to be standing still as a statue in the short grass of the trail. I thought this was a bit odd, what with him being so exposed, but I’ve seen behavior like this before so I just sort of looked past him.

Scanning up in the trees for migrating warblers, up in the cloudless blue sky for the hawk that I was certain had been the cause of the alarm, and then across the hedge for anything interesting, I ended up seeing none of those things. When my gaze cycled back to the cardinal, however, there was something happening there that I could not explain. The male cardinal was still standing in the short grass of the trail, but now there was something there with him. A greenish color, this thing would sit still and then suddenly flop around. But what was I looking at?

Up came the big lens! It took me a moment to zero in on this mysterious target, but once I managed to locate the object and focus on it I was absolutely stunned with surprise. It was a mantis and it was in big trouble. The male cardinal was standing in front of the mantis and it was clearly trying to figure out how to deal with an insect of this size. Meanwhile, the mantis was standing its ground, with its front arms held up and its wings fanned out like a peacock’s tail. The mantis was trying to look as big and as scary as possible, but the cardinal wasn’t deterred.

In that moment I was really annoyed because I had no idea how much of this drama had gone unnoticed by me. I have to imagine that 2 to 3 minutes had gone by before I really became aware that something was afoot and I couldn’t help but wonder what photos I missed out on. Had the mantis also been out in the open? Would there have been a “perfect” photo of the encounter that got away from me? Why hadn’t I glanced at it with my camera before dismissing it?

I didn’t have long to think these thoughts because the cardinal eventually made his move. He hopped over to the mantis, which made a lunge at him and caused him to fly backwards a step or two. This was the only strategy the mantis had because the moment it turned its back on the cardinal it would be game over. The cardinal repositioned himself in a much more favorable position (for me anyway) that put himself and the mantis on the same plane of my camera’s focus. He took a tentative step toward the mantis and that is when I took the photo that appears in today’s column.

Then, things quickly fell apart for the mantis. With his powerful beak the cardinal grabbed one of the mantis’ front legs and bit part of the leg off. As the mantis tried to recover the bird lunged forward for another bite. The mantis fought back, but the cardinal managed to crunch down on the mantis’ “shoulder” this time, which spelled the end for the mantis. The cardinal was cautious, because he couldn’t afford to catch a spike in his eye, but in the next moment he had the mantis by the head. One powerful bite and it was all over. The cardinal raised his wings and flew away with the enormous insect in his beak. I only noticed what was going on in the nick of time.

I think the message here is as simple as this: You never know what you are going to see in your own backyard and every now and then something genuinely remarkable will happen right in front of you if you are outside and paying attention. We all have yards with different features and at some point an amazing drama will unfold. The trick is to be outside looking for it, because it will happen whether or not you are paying attention. The more time you put into the endeavor of observation, the more you will see and the more interesting the world will become for you.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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