Northern Cardinals - Kate Crowley

By Kate Crowley
We were in Iowa City for the Thanksgiving holiday and while out for a pre-dinner walk I heard a distinctive “CHIP” and knew even before turning to look that I would see a beautiful red bird.  There at the top of a cherry tree sat a male Northern Cardinal and as we watched he plucked a cluster of the still dark red cherries with his sharp beak and carried them away to enjoy in a less busy setting.  This particular call which is described as ‘chip’ in the literature has a slightly metallic sound and it the most commonly heard, though not nearly as exciting as the bird’s spring courtship calls of ‘what cheer what cheer’ and ‘pretty pretty pretty’.  It will be a couple months before we can expect to hear these delightful songs.
Male cardinals with their ruby red feathers, black face and chin and reddish beak cry out for attention.  Their feathered crest is the exclamation point on an already striking figure. The female of course is much more subdued in her plumage, since she must blend in with the vegetation and nest in the spring time.  These robin sized birds, measure 8-9 inches. The decurved (downward pointing) bill is designed for the type of food they eat – mainly seeds. They have large jaw muscles which aid in cracking and crushing shells of varying toughness to get at the inner seed.
Cardinals are one of the most common feeder birds in the eastern half of North America, both  north and south, which makes the name Northern Cardinal a bit misleading. The first official sighting of a cardinal in Minnesota occurred in 1875.  Even then they were still only considered visitors, but by the mid-1930s they were well established in the Twin Cities area.  Today they are permanent residents in southern Minnesota, but it is a relatively recent phenomenon to have cardinals in this part of the state. 
They have gradually been making there way north and delighting all who see them.  It is their fondness for sunflower seeds and other assorted bird food provided by people that have helped move them incrementally northward. The planting of evergreens as shelterbelts probably was another enticement.  They are generally non-migratory and from banding records we know that adults rarely go more than a few miles from their birthplace. 
The most popular food for these birds at feeders is sunflower seeds – either the grey striped, black striped or oil types. To a lesser extent they will consume cracked corn, wheat, suet mixtures, sorghum, barley, millet, peanuts and raisins.  You can often find most of these latter items in a mixed bag identified for cardinals, but to be honest, if the birds have access to sunflower seeds, this mix will be left untouched. For the money – sunflower seeds win out.  In our cold climate they are seeking the seeds with the highest caloric content.
They will scavenge seeds on the ground, as well as from elevated feeders.  In the absence of birdfeeders they would eat the seeds of ash and pine, as well as the seeds from wild grape, sumac and dogwood - which is why you might finds some of these plants growing where you have not planted them.  If times are really tough they will find weed seeds and wild fruits from almost every kind of tree, shrub or vine available.   In the summer, coinciding with the nesting and fledging time they expand their diet to include insects. 
Cardinals prefer young coniferous trees, woodland edges, tangled vines and especially shrubby bushes – fairly typical habitat found around a lot of urban and suburban homes.  We have only had cardinals in our yard a few times over the last 20 years and I suspect that our fairly open front yard, where all the feeders are located is just not suitable habitat for raising a family, when there are lots of better locations in nearby towns.  We might possibly be missing any that are visiting since they most often come to feeders at the dusky times of day – both morning and evening. Some people are extremely lucky to not only have a pair of cardinals living nearby, but to see huge aggregations at one time; upwards of 50 have been reported by some individuals.  It’s almost too hard to imagine; talk about sensory overload! 
The birds were supposedly given their common name because of the similarity of their plumage to the red robes worn by the Catholic Cardinals.  Some also say their crest is reminiscent of the mitres worn on Bishop’s heads. They have been beloved by many ever since Europeans started arriving on this continent and I suspect the original residents found them equally delightful. They were so well loved because of their color and songs that in the 1800s they were captured and sent to Europe and other places, like Hawaii and Bermuda. Luckily, the Migratory Bird Act in 1918 stopped that practice.

There is no other bird of the northern regions who adds such a bright splash of desperately needed color in our winter months than cardinals. If you are lucky enough to have more than two living near your home we would be ever so grateful if you’d please send the others our way.


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