The crimson majesty of the Northern cardinal
Living in Balance
By Jenipher Appleton
Bird songs tell of spring
We find ourselves in that lovely transition between late winter and early spring, when the sun feels strong yet the nights remain frigid. Stepping outside in the morning yields a diversity of bird songs, whose performers are more actively communicating in response to the imminent spring.
A most noticeable song comes from one of our non-migratory birds – the Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). The sound has changed from ‘what cheer, what cheer,’ to a more compelling ‘birdy birdy.’
Regular visitors to the feeder all year long, the cardinals seem extra hungry in the month of March. The male’s brilliant red plumage with his accentuated crest makes a striking contrast to the verdant boughs of a lofty spruce. He sports a black mask and beard with a triangular reddish bill.
An official appointed by the Pope to his council is also called a cardinal. He adorns his robe with a bright red cummerbund. It is likely that the bird is named for the esteemed official, rather than the reverse. Otherwise very similar to the male, the female has olive beige upper parts and buff brown under parts. Both genders are 19-23 cm long.
On a recent late afternoon walk with Fergus, our yellow lab puppy, I spied a male cardinal high in the branches of a sugar maple. He would call ‘birdy birdy’ or ‘teacher teacher.’ This melodic tirade was followed up with a spring variation; a low trill or purring. I soon detected a well-camouflaged female on a lower branch, coyly facing away from the wooing male. Shortly, another male landed on a higher branch from a tree about 50m away. The two males proceeded to make several calls and flitted about the branches, vying for the affection of the female, who remained patiently on her branch. Suddenly one of the males aborted his effort, leaving the couple to pursue their mating ritual. Fergus sat attentively observing the cycle of nature unfolding before us.
Food, territorial males and good parents
Food choices for cardinals include insects, seeds, grains, fruits and snails. They drink sap from holes drilled by sapsuckers and enjoy cracked corn and sunflower seeds at feeders.
The male cardinal is willing to fight other birds to defend his territory and has been known to attack his own reflection in windows, car mirrors or other shiny surfaces. This behaviour has caused the deaths of many territorial males. More than once I have scooped up the sad remains of a brilliant male cardinal beneath the drive shed window.
Northern cardinals are monogamous and the male feeds the female while she is incubating the eggs. The fledglings are fed by both sexes. The male will continue to feed and tend the original brood while the female begins the incubation of a second clutch. The cardinal is often host to the hatchlings of the cowbird who has the nasty habit of laying its eggs in the nests of other birds (the height of laziness). All members of the cowbird family are classed as ‘brood parasites’ and the female lays between 10 and 36 eggs per year. That’s a lot of giving up for adoption. The cardinal proceeds to diligently raise its own young along with those of the cowbird. Any predictions as to which offspring wins the fledgling beauty contest?