Male Northern cardinal. Photo by Fred Fallon

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Jake’s Famous Crawfish restaurant in Portland, Ore., was decked out in Christmas finery this Thanksgiving. The wide mahogany doorway was covered with boughs of green. The crowning ornament was a jaunty, slightly askew life-sized male cardinal, so realistic one expected him to open his mouth and sing. The display designer may have been a nostalgic easterner, because there are no cardinals in the Northwest.

John James Audubon has this to say about the cardinal in his second volume of “Birds of America” in 1834: “In richness of plumage, elegance of motion, and strength of song, this species surpasses all its kindred in the United States. … It is very abundant in all our Southern States, as well as in the peninsula of the Floridas. In the western country a great number are found as far up on the Ohio as the city of Cincinnati, and they extend to considerable distances into Indiana, Illinois and Missouri. They are found in the maritime districts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where they breed, and where a few remain the whole year; some are also seen in the State of New York, and now and then a straggler proceeds into Massachusetts. … ” Future Chicago had none.

Northern cardinals are found in the Northern hemisphere as far south as Guatemala and Belize. Cardinals are limited to areas where rainfall exceeds 15 inches. Since Audubon’s time, they have unpredictably expanded their range north into Canada and west along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Some explanations point to warmer winters with less snow and better access to weedy seeds, or more backyard feeding stations, or more development in forested areas which creates the cardinals’ favorite shrubby edge habitat.

As early as 1731, a visiting Scot, Mark Catesby, wrote in his “Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands,” that cardinals, or Virginia Nightingales as they were sometimes called, were captured, caged and sent to the north and to Europe. Passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 prohibited this trade.

Catesby wrote his account in both English and French, titling the English portion “The Red Bird,” its most popular name, and the French section “Le Cardinal,” most likely after the red robes of the College of Cardinals. Catesby noted that “except the Black round the Basis of the bill, the whole Bird is scarlet…. The bill is of a pale red, very thick and strong….The Head is adorned with a towring Crest, which it raises and falls at Pleasure….The Hen is brown; yet has a tincture of red on her wings, Bill and other parts,” including the crest. Immatures resemble the female but have a light grayish or black bill.

Scientists attribute the red, orange and yellow coloring of birds’ plumage, beaks and legs to the presence of carotenoids in their diets. These are the same compounds humans value as antioxidents for health and eyesight. In winter, spring and summer, the cardinals’ diet consists mostly of seeds, which are low in carotenoids. When they molt in the fall, cardinals switch to a higher percentage of carotenoid-containing fruit and, to a lesser extent, insects. Their new feathers are tipped with grey, but as winter wears on, the grey tips wear off, revealing the brilliant red. Recent research suggests that the redder the male, the better his reproductive success and the quality of his territory. This being said, there is no experimental evidence that carotenoids are responsible for the cardinals’ color.

Towards winter, cardinals begin to assemble in small flocks of mixed sex and age. They are usually silent. By the beginning of February, with the lengthening daylight, the familiar songs are heard again: cheer cheer cheer and birdie birdie birdie. Cardinals are establishing their breeding territory. They chase each other, sing, posture and even fight.

After males have secured their ground, courtship begins, with the pair singing duets and matching each other phrase for phrase. Cardinals take occasional short breaths between syllables, allowing them to sing lengthier songs. Studies show that songs are learned, while calls are apparently innate. In another charming courtship behavior, the male hops close to the female on a branch, cocks his head, and feeds her, sometimes several times a minute.

Cardinals begin nest building in early spring. The pair selects the nest site, but the female constructs the nest, deeply hidden in a thicket of twigs or evergreens, with occasional materials furnished by her mate. Nest materials include stiff stems, twigs, leaves, paper, strips of bark, vines, fine rootlets and grasses arranged in four distinct layers. The female makes the twigs pliable by chewing them. She bends them around her body, turns inside the nest, pushes out with her feet, and forms a bowl. The nest is wedged into place, not woven onto a branch.

An average clutch is 2-3 speckled brownish eggs. Incubation takes 13 days. Hatchlings remain in the nest for 10 days. The male is the primary purveyor of food during this time and takes an active part in feeding and caring for fledglings, especially if the female is building another nest. Nestlings are fed mostly insects.

With its compelling song, striking color, and year-round presence at feeders, it is no wonder that it is the official bird of seven states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.

Note:

The cardinal will be around all year. This column will resume in late May, 2010. Good birding!