Songbirds don’t get much attention in my shelter write-ups, because people see them routinely and, quite frankly, most of us take them for granted. With the recent white-outs across the region, the songbird who simply pops against the backdrop of falling and resting snow is the Northern Cardinal. This bird can be seen year round because it does not migrate as most other songbirds do and is probably the most easily recognized bird in our area and yours. The Northern Cardinal is a fairly large, long-tailed songbird with a short, very thick bill and a prominent crest. The cardinal is the only red bird in eastern North America with a crest on top of his or her head, which rises when the bird senses danger. They are gorgeous, be it an 8 to 9 inch long male cardinal who is brilliant red all over with a black mask or the stunning, pale brown female also with black face but who sports a bright orange bill that looks like recently applied coral lipstick. Males with a brighter red color have more success finding a mate and enjoy greater reproductive rates than a duller color male. So, in this case, what you’re wearing counts! At the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, we get our share of infant cardinals to raise in the Spring and year around, the occasional window smacked or cat attacked adult who drops feathers everywhere in their attempt to survive an aggressive feline. Barring more serious injury than feather loss, the adults usually stay at the shelter for a long time, growing back their primary feathers, which is imperative to returning them to flight status. This year we’ve taken on a resident cardinal we named Duncan. As an infant he was admitted as an orphan with an eye problem and eventually lost sight in his right eye. He has, what we believe to be, a very comfortable and nicely decorated enclosure in the clinic hallway, where the action is, and he seems to enjoy all the attention he gets from the staff and the occasional tour. Routinely, we let him stretch his wings by flying around the building, and he accommodates all turns and straight aways very well despite his diminished sight. He loves to sing, and we love to hear his sweet whistling song. Both male and female cardinals sing, unlike many other songbirds in North America where only a male songbird is capable of singing. It’s interesting to note that biologists report some cardinal songs are sung with accents. Duncan also loves “shiny.” We make a point not to wear earrings around wildlife for some fairly obvious reasons, but one day one of our staffers forgot she was wearing her small diamond studs. Duncan spied one of the sparklies and zoomed in to remove the bauble to make it his own. He was relentless and clasped onto the stone fiercely with his vice-grip beak before the earring was removed from her ear and eventually pried from Duncan’s beak. Fortunately, the staffer was not injured. Duncan is such a little pistol! We often see cardinals in our backyards, parks, wooded areas, brushy swamps and forest edges. You will also often see them in pairs because they are monogamous and mate for life. Their common name, as well as the scientific name, Cardinal, refers to the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church, who wear distinctive red robes and caps. “Northern” refers to the region where they are found. Cardinals are also called Red Birds and Virginia Nightingales. A group of cardinals has a number of names to include a college, conclave, deck, radiance and Vatican. Northern Cardinals begin their breeding season in early Spring. The males and females sing to each other during courtship, and the male has been observed feeding seed to the female beak-to-beak. A male becomes very territorial, defending his territory and mate aggressively. They often attack their own reflections, mistaking them for other males. During breeding season, they nest generally less than eight feet off the ground in dense tangles of shrubs and vines. Northern Cardinals build a cup-shaped nest using twigs, leaves, grass, bark strips, roots, weed stems, paper and hair. They have also been known to use threads from Poison Ivy stems! A clutch of three to four eggs is laid and incubation, which the female takes sole responsibility for, lasts only 12-13 days. Fledglings and immature cardinals look more like females than males. Cardinals keep a very neat house or nest I should say. When hatched youngsters defecate, one of the parents removes the fecal sacs and carries them away from the nest to ensure their location remains hidden from predators such as owls, hawks, foxes, cats, raccoons, skunks and opossums. After fledging, the juveniles continue to be cared for by the male for approximately 3 weeks. The young are taught to forage for insects, seeds and fruit. Northern Cardinals are known to include 51 kinds of beetles, four types of grasshoppers, termites, ants, flies, dragonflies, leaf hoppers, cicadas and aphids in their diet. Although they do good works to help keep pest insects at bay, cardinals usually have a fairly short life span. Most cardinals live only a few years or less, however rare 10-15 year banded birds have been discovered still living in the wild and of course, captivity increases their longevity. Many years ago, the cardinal was once prized as a pet, but although it is not a migratory bird, its sale as a cage bird is banned in the United States by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The Northern Cardinal is so beloved, it is the state bird of seven states; Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and the great state of North Carolina! With Duncan in the house, we know why this resplendent red bird is chosen as a favorite so often!
author of “Save Them All“