By Shani Friedman
The intense irresistible red of a male cardinal inspires many people to enter the world of birding for the first time. His coloration, body shape, crest, clear loud song and calls, and willingness to frequent backyard feeders insure notice by observing humans. Cardinals are so popular that seven states – Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia – have honored them as their state bird. The bird has many common names - redbird, cardinal grosbeak, Virginia cardinal, Big Red, crested redbird, Kentucky redbird, and Virginia nightingale. The bird lends its name to a baseball team, the Saint Louis Cardinals, and to our own Arizona Cardinals football team, as well as scores of junior and senior colleges in the USA and Canada.
The 7-1/2 - 8-1/2 inch long Northern Cardinal often perches on a branch with its tail pointed directly downward. A hunched over posture, large thick red bill and crest help you know at a glance what bird is gracing your view. The male is almost entirely bright red, with a red crest that is raised and lowered at will. He is the only red bird in North America with a crest. His massive thick red bill is surrounded by black feathers, referred to as its mask. Females are predominantly brown on top, olive grey below with reddish wings and crest and a red/pink bill. Sometimes females are mistaken for our southwestern Pyrrhuloxia, but a closer look reveals a red bill surrounded by black feathers on a brown female cardinal, whereas a grey Pyrrhuloxia has a rounder yellow or bone colored bill, shaped more like a parrot’s and lacks black on the face. Immature cardinals look much like a female, but are browner and have a black bill.
Look for cardinals in dense shrubby thickets - along the borders of fields, edges of woods, in hedges, canebrakes, swamps, and stream banks. They are often seen in parks and gardens of towns, villages and suburbia.
Northern cardinals are not truly migratory, but when grown, young cardinals wander in all directions. Once a bird associated with the southeastern USA, the birds are steadily expanding their range northward. They are resident from southeast South Dakota, central Minnesota, western and southern Ontario, northwestern Vermont, eastern Massachusetts, south in the eastern states and through central Nebraska, western Kansas, central Texas to northern Mexico, central Louisiana, the Gulf coast of Mississippi, Alabama and Southern Florida, also in southern California, central Arizona, and southwestern New Mexico, south to Baja California and Mexico to Belize. They were introduced into Hawaii.
Songs and Calls
In case you are wondering what the difference between a song and a call is…A bird’s song is longer and more complex, usually associated with courtship and mating. A bird’s call is simpler and serves as an alarm or a means of keeping in contact with other birds in the flock.
In most species, only the male sings. Not so for the talented cardinals. Males and females sing equally well. Song, an important coordinating behavior in the life of a cardinal, includes at least 28 different phrases. They sing clear, rich whistled songs in every month of the year, phonetically described as what cheer, what cheer or whoit, whoit, whoit or wheat, wheat, wheat or tew, tew, tew. Short phrases of clear whistled notes are repeated several times before being varied. Cardinal song varies from bird to bird, from day to day and from one region to another.
Cardinals sing during courtship and territory formation. In either context, while perched in different places, they countersing. One bird sings a phrase and the other responds, often with an exact recapitulation of the first one’s song. After a little while, the first bird changes the song and the other copies the new song. Cardinals’ call and response countersinging can continue for good parts of the day. Antiphonal singing between a courting pair and between two rival males in separate territories is indistinguishable. You must locate by sight which two are singing to be sure what the birds are communicating – are they singing to strengthen the bond between a mated pair, or are they singing to settle a property dispute?
Calls are much simpler. Most commonly heard is the short, clean, metallic chip call, loudly or softly uttered as a single note or in rapid volleys. It indicates a variety of behaviors – alarm, territorial encounters and aggressive interactions, going to roost or maintaining contact between mates. Fledglings often call with short phrases of rapidly repeated chips. A less common, lower pitched, non-metallic call is the short, harsh single kwut call. It is used in courtship, aggressive encounters, and during nestling/fledgling phase when there is possible danger to the young. During aggressive interactions, a peetoo call, two short unslurred notes, the first higher in pitch than the second, can be interspersed with the chip and the kwut call.
Cardinals are a favorite bird at our bird feeding station. We offer them our exclusive cardinal mix, comprised of sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, peanuts and hemp in a species-specific cardinal feeder. They come most often early in the morning, and along toward dusk, but can be seen almost anytime during the daylight hours if given a feeder reserved for their use. They move through the trees and bushes or hop about on the ground foraging for food. Seeds are not their only food source. Cardinals eat at least 51 kinds of beetles, cicadas, dragonflies, leafhoppers, aphids, scale insects, ants, sawflies, termites, grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, snails and slugs. They love fruit, sometimes eating the oranges and melons that we put out in a fruit feeder. All told, they eat 33 kinds of wild fruit when they can find it.
Aside from adding great color to a bird feeding station, cardinals exhibit the changing nature of a pair’s relationship throughout the year. In fall and early winter, the pair may be mildly aggressive toward each other. In late winter as breeding season approaches, the pair becomes more tolerant of each other and feeds peacefully together. The male begins to burst out in song fragments during the day. Watch carefully and you can see the male beginning to bring food offerings to his mate. He hops over carrying a seed, tilts his head sideways, and places the seed in her beak. Mate feeding continues throughout the spring into early summer as often as 4 times per minute.
Courtship begins in late winter as described above, with the lessening of tension between a pair of cardinals. In the following weeks, the cardinals begin mate feeding, countersinging and exhibiting a body position called lop-sided pose.
In the early part of courtship, the pair perches a distance apart and countersings. One of the pair sings a phrase and the other copies it. See the description of this in songs and calls above. The next thing that happens is mate feeding, easily seen at your feeders as described in feeder behavior above.
The third main courtship behavior is not so often seen – lop-sided pose. One or both birds tilt their body first to one side and then to the other, sometimes so quickly that it results in a swaying motion. Most often, it is the male that assumes this pose, and he may accompany it with a bit of song or kwut calls
Another aspect of courtship is the song-flight of the male as he flies toward his mate or another intruding female. He flies slowly, at times hovering, using shallow but rapid wing beats. His crest is raised, tail spread, and breast feathers fluffed up. The flight is between 10 and 100 feet long.
Sometimes an unmated bird competes for another bird’s mate. This results in a confusing chase – male after male, female after female, accompanied by lots of song and chip calls. These encounters can last for several hours.
Cardinals like to nest in the densest part of a thicket, vine, shrub or hedge, from 2 to 12 feet above the ground. One spring, we were lucky enough to be staying in a house in midtown Tucson that had a dense pyracantha bush hedge surrounding the window of the office area. We had a “bird’s eye view” of the building of a cardinal nest. The female did the building, flying in with nesting material in her beak, making a nest in the forks of twigs deep in the bush. The male often came along with her, and occasionally sang while perching near the nest. Every time the female came to the nest, she gave a few chip calls. It took her about five days to complete her nest.
Over the next three days, she laid one egg per day. She incubated the eggs for almost 2 weeks. During incubation, she sang, seemingly encouraging her mate to bring her something to eat. Sometimes she flew out to feed herself, combined with being fed by her mate. Sometimes the two birds would sing to each other when he was out and about while she stayed on the nest.
Once her babies hatched, the lady Cardinal tended them constantly for the first two days, then less and less through the fifth day. For the first few days, her mate brought all the food to the nest for both the young and the female, as often as 11 times an hour. Then both parents foraged for the young. After about a week, the hatchlings started to make their first sounds, while stretching their heads above the rim of the nest.
After about 10 days the young left the nest. They stayed close by, perching close to the nest and the parents continued to feed them. If we approached too close while the young were being fed, the parents flew around us, giving rapid chip calls. When a marauding Cooper’s hawk flew in, the parents sounded the same rapid chip calls.
Cardinals can raise 2, 3, or even 4 broods. When undertaking multiple nesting, the male cares for the first brood, while the female incubates the eggs of the next one.
Our Northern cardinals are some of our most beloved birds. Their colors, songs, and behaviors are readily observed in our own backyards. Their willingness to live in close proximity to us, a varied diet, close familial ties and capacity for multiple breeding in one year make them a bird that is far from endangered status. Feeding the cardinals is rewarded with opportunities to appreciate their beauty and to look into their behaviors from courting, mating, and territorial disputes to the raising of their young.