Northern Cardinal

One of the sights we enjoy most is watching a pair of Northern Cardinals visiting our feeders. Even if you’re not a birder. you probably recognize the species from at least one Christmas card every year depicting a bright red cardinal in pure white snow.

Along with appearing on greeting cards, Cardinals are honored natives in many areas of the United States: more states have chosen the Northern Cardinal — seven — as their official bird than any other species.

Appearance

Northern Cardinals are easily identified by even casual birders. The first thing you notice is the bright red color of the male. The species is slightly smaller than a robin (about 8½ inches in length). It has a long tail, a very thick bill and a prominent crest.

As mentioned above, male cardinals are a brilliant red all over, which is important in the mating process. They have a reddish bill and black face around the bill.

Females are tan/gray overall, with warm reddish highlights in their wings, tail, and crest. They have the same black face and reddish bill as the male.

Cardinals often sit with a hunched-over posture with their tail pointed straight down.

Range

Northern Cardinals’ range includes the northeast, Midwest, southeast, and northwest United States and into Canada. They are permanent residents throughout their range; they don’t migrate south.

Habitat

Northern Cardinals nest in dense tangles of shrubs and vines. You can look for them anywhere from a backyard, to a city park, to a forest or swamp.

In the wild, cardinals can be spotted, often in pairs, sitting low in shrubs and trees or foraging on the ground for insects, seeds, grain, fruit, and sap. Back in civilization, they are also frequent visitors to bird feeders.

Characteristics

Cardinals are songbirds and sing a variety of different melodies. Birders easily identify their distinctive, loud, metallic-sounding chirp.

Few female bird species anywhere in the world sing, but the female Northern Cardinal is a singer . . . often while sitting on her nest. It’s speculated that her song communicates to the male when to bring food to the nest. A mated pair shares song phrases, but the female may sing a longer and slightly more complex song than the male. (No jokes from the men reading this, please.)

Typically, cardinal pairs are monogamous and remain together the whole year. Sometimes. in winter, the bond may be relaxed; however, pairs often stay mated until one dies . . . at which time the survivor will look for another partner. Because of this trait, many write-ups profiling the Northern Cardinal, suggest that they mate for life.

The female builds the nest while the male keeps a close eye on her and the surrounding territory for predators and other males. The nest is made up of twigs, bark strips, vine leaves, rootlets, paper, and lined with vines, grass and hair.

At your bird feeder, you may observe the male pick up a seed, hop over to the female, and momentarily touch her beak as she takes the food. It’s called mate-feeding . The practice continues through the egg-laying and incubation phases of breeding.

The male cardinal fiercely defends his breeding territory from other males. Although we’ve never witnessed it at our home, we understand that it’s not uncommon for a male to fight his own reflected image in a window. The battle against the imaginary foe can last hours.

Breeding

The breeding season generally runs from March to September. The female lays and incubates 2-5 eggs. The male’s job is to feed her on the nest and protect their territory from intruders.

Incubation lasts almost two weeks. When the eggs hatch, both parents feed their offspring. The young leave the nest between nine and eleven days after hatching. The male continues to feed the young for up to two weeks after they leave the nest.

Each season the pair attempt to raise two broods, with the female constructing a new nest for each brood.

Young males initially look like the female, but by winter they develop the black mask, crest, and red feathers of adult males.

Your Backyard

Nearly any bird feeder you put out ought to attract Northern Cardinals within their range. They prefer black oil sunflower seeds, but also feed on hulled sunflower seeds, safflower, cracked corn, peanut hearts, millet and milo.

For a feeder, you can use a large tube feeder, a large hopper, or a platform. They also will eat off the ground.


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