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Nature Notes: Northern Cardinal

Ed Robinson
December 10, 2019

(Photo by Bob Hilscher iStock)

The holidays are upon us, and everywhere you see red – flashing lights, bright ribbons, ugly sweaters, you name it. While there are many shades of red, the one we’re interested in is “cardinal red,” so popular it has an official designation in the Pantone Matching System for paints as #201. If you’re a holiday humbug, perhaps you prefer seeing cardinal jerseys on sports teams from St. Louis, Arizona, the University of Arkansas or the Stanford (CA) Cardinal. But if you hang a bird feeder each winter you are probably enjoying a lovely bird officially known as the Northern cardinal.

Easy on the eye, and a joy to watch as they flit around your property, cardinals are comfortable around humans and our development. In recent decades they have expanded their territory from the southeastern states to as far north as southern Canada. Some cardinals range as far west as southern California and the desert southwest. Able to tolerate winter conditions, especially if bird feeders are available, cardinals are mostly non-migrating, spending their lives in a relatively small area. The oldest documented cardinal reached 15 years old.

Once you have seen a male northern cardinal in his full breeding plumage, you won’t forget him. This makes them one of our most popular song birds, with images found on many commercial products. The cardinal was the first bird designated as a state bird, with Kentucky leading the way in 1926. Six other states have followed.

A fairly large songbird, slightly smaller than the American robin, the cardinal has a long tail and a distinctive crest on his head, similar to the blue jay. Both sexes have a black face around a short, thick, red bill but the male shows red over most of his body with black and grey highlights on his wings and back. The females are pale brown but they have red tinges on their crest, tail and wings.

Cardinals are closely related to buntings and grosbeaks, and they display common physical characteristics and behaviors. Cardinals are often seen perched on low limbs or on the ground in a hunched position with their tails pointed down. When foraging, they hop along the ground or low in shrubs and trees. Their preferred habitat for feeding and nesting is in thick cover, which provides cover from predators and their favorite foods. If you have such cover near your bird feeders, you will encourage the cardinals to visit regularly.

The cardinal’s strong bill indicates that these birds are equipped for eating seeds, and sunflower seeds are enough to draw them all winter. Throughout the year their diet varies considerably as they consume different seeds, fruits such as grapes and blackberries, and insects (grasshoppers, spiders, beetles, caterpillars, flies, etc.). Their young are fed mostly on insects to provide a rich diet of protein and fat while the chicks are growing rapidly.

Cardinals sing to each other while courting, swaying back and forth with heads raised high. The male will offer food to his intended to help seal the bargain. Once paired, cardinals are highly territorial and when they have selected a nest site both the male and female will defend it tenaciously. They will not tolerate other cardinals close to their nests, and they use aggressive calling and attack flights to scare off intruders. This can lead to the birds picking fights with their reflections in windows and mirrors, with the “battles” going on for hours until the bird either tires or it gets too dark for a reflection to be seen. The female selects the nest site and does most of the building over several days, although the male will help out by bringing nesting materials to his mate.

The female will produce one to three broods per year, with each clutch of eggs numbering two to five. The eggs are a grayish or bluish white with brown, purple and gray speckles. The female sits on the eggs for nine to eleven days, and the young are capable of leaving the nest after two weeks. Once the young have fledged, the male will continue to feed them while the female turns her attention to her next nesting attempt.

Cardinals are fairly gregarious, moving around in pairs and, in winter, forming sizable flocks that travel and feed together. They are also comfortable foraging with other birds such as dark-eyed juncos, sparrows and goldfinches. Cardinal pairs generally stay together through a winter with an estimated 20 percent splitting up before the following mating season.

The North American Breeding Bird Survey shows that northern cardinals have managed to increase their population slightly between 1966 and 2014. Partners in Flight estimates the US population at more than 90 million birds. This means that cardinals are in no current danger of extinction and we can count on enjoying them for many years to come.

Red has always been an auspicious color in many religions. Think of the robes worn by high officials of the Catholic Church, or the red envelopes given for Chinese New Year. The Cherokee have long believed that the northern cardinal is the daughter of the sun, a bird of omens. If a person sees a cardinal flying upwards toward the sun that is deemed a sign of good fortune to follow the viewer. May good fortune follow you through the holidays and into 2020!

If you like Ed Robinson’s writing, check out his two Nature Notes books! Click here for more information.