The Northern Cardinal, A Cut Above the Crest
The Regal Red Bird
This is the official bird of seven of our U.S. states, who sings a wide variety of upbeat melodies throughout the year. These birds have adapted to the suburban areas, visit backyard feeders constantly, and will occasionally allow one to hand feed them. These birds are easily differentiated between the sexes, as well as the juvenile bird. The male is all red with a black mask, and cone-shaped reddish bill, with a distinctive crest atop the head. The female is buffy brown with buffy olive upperparts with the black mask, and the crest. The young one resembles the adult female with a blackish instead of a reddish bill.
Two Sides to Every Story
The male becomes very aggressive, especially during breeding season and will fight other birds to protect his territory. He frequently has been seen attacking his own reflection in car mirrors, windows, chrome, and hubcaps. But his gentler side is there, too. During courtship, he will open seeds and feed his lady love before himself. Now, isn’t that a true gentleman?
The Distinctive Songs
The songs are various and many. There are at least 25, if not more, and the most prevailing are “ku, ku, ku,” and “chek, chek, chek.” Those cannot be missed. The female will sing duets with her intended during the courtship right after their territory has been established and just prior to nesting. This call is an abrasive “chip” or “pikk.”
These birds are solitary or in pairs during breeding season. They are gregarious at other times, will flock in winter, and are known to join foraging flocks of mixed species. They will forage on the ground, in trees, or bushes. They enjoy fruit, grains, snails, insects, and seeds. Cardinals also will drink the sap from sapsucker drill holes. They hop, rather than walking on the ground.
They are very widespread and abundant in residential areas, woodland edges, thickets, and undergrowth. Their range has expanded more northerly in the past century, partially due to to the increases in feeding stations. They tend to be somewhat casual in the western part of the country, but like anything else, their expansion is increasing, yet they are not migratory.
If you’d like to have Northern Cardinals in your yard, put out cracked corn, sunflower seeds, and general wild birdseed. They will also enjoy your birdbaths.
Surprisingly, these birds are a common cowbird host, especially in the central portion of their range.
Nests are made from bark strips, weeds, twigs, assorted grasses, and leaves, usually lined with finer grass and hair. They are in the fork of a low tree or bush, and can be set in tangled vines or twigs, and are between five to 15 feet above the ground. The female handles nest building, and a clutch is usually three or four eggs.
Isn't There a Pill for That?
After breeding season, the male cardinal is known to pull out his own feathers to make way for new growth. He can appear to look quite ugly with such sparse feathers. There is nothing wrong with him, as it is common behavior. If you see a strange looking, semi-dressed male cardinal, don’t worry, he will be back to normal shortly.