Creature Feature: Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

Northern Cardinal - Photo Earl Harrison

One of the most ubiquitous birds of eastern North America, The Northern Cardinal has benefited from an uncanny ability to adapt to human-modified habitats.  Both the common and genus names refer to the rich red robes and caps of Catholic high-priests called cardinals, but this color is only in mature males (of the bird, that is). However, their crest is shaped more like the miter of a bishop than the skullcap of a cardinal.

Northern Cardinal - Photo Susan Young

Northern Cardinal in fir tree – Photo Susan Young

Relationships: Cardinals are members of the Family Emberizidae.  This is the huge family of grosbeaks, sparrows, buntings, wood-warblers, and tanagers.  It was constructed in the 1980s after DNA evidence showed that all of these disparate groups of birds were actually quite closely related.  Cardinals are in the subfamily Cardinalinae, the cardinal-grosbeaks, which include a wide variety of big-billed fruit- and seed-eaters of the New World.  As with many of our Ohio birds, there are more species of cardinals in the tropics than here, including the Vermillion Cardinal of Columbia and Venezuela and the Pyrrholuxia (or Mexican Cardinal) of Texas, Arizona, and Mexico.  Closely related is the Brazilian Cardinal of the genus Paroaria that many of you may have seen in Hawaii or Florida, where it has been introduced from its South American home range.

Range: Eastern and central North America, extending from Maine and Nebraska south to Florida and Texas, then southwest into southern Arizona and virtually all of Mexico.  Don’t look for them west of the Rocky Mountains, except in southern Arizona and New Mexico; they are a very rare vagrant to California and Oregon. They also have not been able to colonize much of Canada, perhaps because of the extreme winter weather.  The heart of their range is the many edges of the deciduous forest of the central and eastern U.S., but their adaptation to human yards and farms has allowed them to spread west across much of the Great Plains.  In many parts of their range, these birds are more common around human settlements than in wild habitats, especially in the arid parts of the Great Plains, Texas, and Mexico.

Northern Cardinal - Photo Alan Schmierer

Northern Cardinal (female) – Photo Alan Schmierer

Northern Cardinal - Photo Earl Harrison

Northern Cardinal – Photo Earl Harrison

Field Marks:  Cardinal males are unmistakable, with their brilliant scarlet chest, neck, and crest framing a dark black face. The brilliant red color is over most of their body, and may act as a marker of good health that allows females to choose only the most disease-free, vibrant males as potential mates.  Females and juveniles are much more subdued in color, but still beautiful birds in their own right. Females have a rich tan-brown color, with scarlet highlights on their wing primaries, tails, and crest.  Hatching-year juveniles are similar to females except that they are grayer over-all, with much less red on their wings and tail, and none on their crest.  One of the quickest ways to separate them out is to look at their bills: adult bills of both males and females are red-orange, while juveniles have dark gray bills, which gradually turn to pink then orange as the birds mature.

Voice: A beautiful clear-whistled repetitive song that varies distinctively between different males.  Some sound like ‘whoit whoit whoit …’ while others sound closer to ‘teuw teuw teuw…’.  Older males appear able to make several different songs, and even to vary phrases within a song, and may use this expanded repertoire to make themselves more attractive to potential partners and more intimidating to potential rivals.  They can even add other chips and sounds into their song on odd occasions, and quite a few birds appear to end their songs with a bizarre mechanical ‘whirrrrrr’.   Adding to their charm is that cardinals start singing early in the Spring, often starting in March or early April.  They also are one of the first birds to sing in the morn-ing chorus.  As reported by many early risers, cardinals around houses start singing before sunrise for much of the Spring. We’ve had such a cardinal around our house for several years now who favors a perch a little too close to our bedroom window.

Survival Strategies. Cardinals are one of the few wild birds in Ohio that are adapting well to human habitats. Almost any walk through a Columbus neighborhood will produce many cardinals, in all but the most extremely urban neighborhoods. How do they do it?  One helpful feature is that they’re not picky about what they eat. Cardinals’ large strong beaks allow them to break open the toughest seeds or buds, but they will also eat a wide variety of insects and fruits. Several guidebooks list in excess of 60 different food items for cardinals and the truth is likely broader than that. There’s an advantage to having those large beaks. A corollary to this is that cardinals can give a pretty good defensive nip to would-be attackers or handlers. Bird banders are especially cognizant of this, and most long-time banders have their share of cardinal ‘horror-stories’ along with the bite scars to verify them.

Another adaptable feature of cardinals is that they’re fast and prolific nesters. Cardinals begin nesting in March-April and don’t quit until August, usually producing 2-3 broods and sometimes more.  Each consists of 2-5 eggs, and it only takes two weeks of incubation and another 10-12 days of feeding before the young fledge. Cardinal nests are nothing fancy, either; they’re sturdy cups fastened into the crotch of a bush, usually between 2-to-8-feet off the ground.  Add in the fact that cardinals don’t migrate, so they know their territories and their mates intimately, and you have the recipe for ‘fledgling factories’.  This is probably good, given the large numbers of nests parasitized by cowbirds and juveniles that fall prey to cats, squirrels, raccoons, and Cooper’s hawks.  The perils of suburban neighborhoods for young cardinals are legion.

Northern Cardinal - Photo Alan Schmierer

Northern Cardinal – Photo Alan Schmierer

Finally, though, there appears to be an emerging bond between cardinals and humans.  It’s more than that they hang around our yards.  They seem able to learn our peculiarities. There are loads of reports, both anecdotal and scientific, of cardinals that know where to look for food around houses or ‘calling out’ humans to fill feeders.  They nest in our hedges and rather than flush in our presence (like other birds) they often ‘freeze’ on the nest.  Even more reports show that cardinals teach their young how to forage at different feeders and how to be careful and comfortable around human yards.  They’ve pro-gressed along much the same path as House Sparrows and Rock Doves, but have done so in just 400-500 years.  It would be fascinating to see what the next few centuries bring in this relationship.

In central Ohio, cardinals are ubiquitous virtually everywhere, even in winter, as befits our state bird.  One of my fondest cardinal memories is a bleary Christmas Bird Count years ago, driving around Gahanna and Jefferson Township with the Columbus compiler CeCe Johnson. Few birds were out on this snowy overcast day other than cardinals, but they more than made up for the weather and lack of birds, adding bright red accents to the most somber winter scenes.

Perhaps because of the sere landscape, cardinals always seem at their brightest in the winter.  Especially look for them around feeders, particularly those that contain large sunflower seeds or cracked corn.  Feeders at many Metro Parks are excellent places to see them; I’ve had particular luck at the feeders around the nature centers at Blacklick and Blendon Woods, where cardinal numbers can reach into the 20s-30s, and occasionally more.  But almost any backyard feeder is bound to attract some.

The Columbus Dispatch nature-writer Jim Fry has his readers make a feeder census for cardinals every January that is always interesting in the numbers of birds it uncovers.

But you don’t need an official census to enjoy these birds. Just look out at your feeders, and watch as another generation of cardinals learns to be a little more clever and resilient around our yards and homes.