By Paul Lonardo
The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), or simply the cardinal, is one of the most recognizable and beloved birds in the country because of its bright red color, joyful songs and year-round presence. They live throughout eastern and central North America, so if you live west of the Rocky Mountains you’ve probably never seen one live. Cardinals are medium-sized birds, 7-8 inches in length with a wingspan of about 12 inches, characterized by a unique red crest, a black mask on the face and a short conical red bill. While known for their vivid red color, only the male presents itself in bright red. The female cardinal has grayish shades through her body with duller red wings and tail. Young cardinals are similar to females, but rather than orangey or reddish bills, they have black or grey ones.
Cardinals are unlike many other songbirds in North America, because whereas typically only the male songbird is capable of singing, both the male and female cardinals can sing. Further, while the pair shares some melodic phrases, the female actually has a more elaborate song. The melody is pleasant and it resembles a whistle, but sometimes they make more mechanical “clinks.” As cardinals do not seem to need a lot of sleep, you may hear them singing in the morning well before sunrise. They can sing over 24 different songs, and scientists believe female cardinals sing from the nest to tell the males when she needs more food. These are monogamous birds that may mate for life. If the pair is able to produce healthy offspring, they may remain together for some time, raising as many as three groups, or clutches of eggs together each summer. A mated pair is often seen feeding together, with the male gently offering a seed to his mate in a beak-to-beak, kiss-like gesture.
The male cardinal is very territorial and protects his breeding space from any male that comes his way. During the mating season, which begins in March, the males are so hot-blooded that, although they breed near birds of other species, they will never allow one of their own kind to nestle in their territory. A male cardinal can be seen frequently following another from bush to bush, emitting a shrill note of anger, and diving aggressively towards the trespasser. Though cardinals are often perceived as vain because they appear to be attracted by mirrors, the attraction is actually an expression of his territorial instinct. A male cardinal can spend hours trying to expel his reflected image that he perceives as an intruder. The unusual crest of this red bird is a visible marker of his emotional state. When calm it lies flat, when excited it lifts tall and peaked. You might even see a male Northern Cardinal attacking a window for the same reason, fiercely defending his breeding territory from perceived intruding males.
Not only do male cardinals share in the duties of parenthood with his mate during and after incubation, the redbird’s fatherly instincts direct him to protect and care for the mother as well as the babies until they are safely out of the nest. Young cardinals frequently follow their parents on the ground for several days after leaving the nest. They tend to remain with their parents until they are able to find food on their own.
It is interesting to note that while the male is caring for his family his bright red color will change to a duller shade of brown and his appearance will be more like that of his female counterpart. This transformation of color occurs as a camouflage helping him to fulfill his duties as a dedicated parent.
The cardinal is a robust seed-eater with a strong bill. They also eat fruits – small berries – and insects. Cardinals, like flamingos, use food – such as grapes or dogwood berries – to keep up appearances. During the digestive process, pigments from the fruit enter the bloodstream and make their way to feather follicles and crystallize. If a cardinal can’t find berries to snack on, its hue will gradually start fading.
Cardinals don’t migrate south for the winter, but rely on bird feeders for food during cold, snowy months. Towards autumn, they frequently ascend to the tops of tall trees in search of grapes and berries. They will live their entire lives within one or two kilometer radius of where they were born. So if you have them nearby, you are likely to see them frequently, as the lifespan of the northern cardinal can be up to fifteen years. Unlike most birds, cardinals appear to actually be benefiting from the growth of cities. With so many city parks offering bird feeders, cardinals are thriving. Since the eighteenth century, the cardinal numbers and popularity have been growing steadily.
If you are interested in observing cardinals, they are often found near bird feeders, so you may want to install one in your yard. Since cardinals do not stay in the same nest twice, and you desire the cardinals to remain, you may wish to provide some shelter and nest building materials.
Keep in mind that it is illegal to own a cardinal as a pet or to kill one; they are a government-protected wild bird species and protected pursuant to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
Cardinal nests are composed of dry leaves and twigs combined with dry grass. Their eggs may number from three to six and are of a bluish beige color, marked with touches of olive-brown. They tend to build their nests without much consideration location-wise. They can often be found in some low briar, bush, or tree, sometimes close to houses or in gardens.
Not knowing any else about this bird, but just seeing its beautiful color and watching a mated pair care for their young, it can hardly be surprising that the cardinal is the state bird of seven states; Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky.