Male Northern Cardinal
Aaah, don’t you love it when I’m bilingual? I do! As if you haven’t guessed, Cardinalis cardinalis is the Latin name for what is likely the most popular bird in American gardens, the northern cardinal. This bird is so popular, it is the official bird of seven different states! Almost everyone recognizes the bright red male with his black mask, orange bill, and perky crest. And most of us have probably observed that the female is a soft brown version of the male. But did you know that all young cardinals, male or female, start out looking just like the female, except they have black beaks instead of the bright orange beaks of the adult birds? Here are a few more interesting facts about cardinals:
1. They do not migrate. The cardinals in your yard will stay there all year long, whether you live in Florida like I do, or in Maine.
2. The cardinal’s range extends westward over almost 2/3’s of the United States, but the far western states do not have them. They have a bird that appears similar, but without the striking red coloration, called a pyrrhuloxia, or desert cardinal. You can definitely see the resemblance, but I’m kind of partial to our nice “redbird,” as we southerners used to call them.
3. The heavy, finch-like bill of the cardinal is designed for cracking seeds, and I can attest to the fact that you do NOT want to get any tender bits of skin caught in it. I used to take care of injured and orphaned birds for Florida Audubon, and a cardinal bite HURTS.
4. I don’t know about all of the cardinal’s range, but around here, cardinals are the first birds to sing in the morning, and the last ones singing at night. And they have a lovely song, in addition to the heavy “chip” call they use when visiting the bird feeder, or “talking” to their babies. Go here to listen to 4 examples cardinals chipping and singing.
5. The cardinal was named for his bright red color, which early settlers in the New World thought looked like the scarlet robes of the church’s cardinals. But the cardinal is NOT the only bright red bird in the eastern United States. Less common, especially at feeders, are the solid red summer tanagers, and their black-winged cousins, scarlet tanagers. These birds are primarily insect eaters, but for some reason, a male summer tanager showed up at my feeder in the company of a painted bunting two summers in a row, and ate seeds for days before moving on. Notice that the beaks of the tanagers are not designed for seed crushing like the cardinal’s, but rather for insect catching. Summer tanagers have a real penchant for eating wasp larvae right out of the nest, and will work that beak into each little cavity to pull out the young.
Male Summer Tanager
Male Scarlet Tanager
Cardinals are constant visitors to any feeder with fresh seed, loving sunflower seeds most of all. They will readily eat just about any other kind, too. In addition to seeds, they also eat some fruit and insects. And they will even strip the fleshy leaves off of certain succulents. Guess they like some salad now and then. They build their nests in shrubs and small bushy trees, often only 5 or 6 feet off the ground; and they will raise multiple clutches of young each year here in Florida, as long as the weather stays warm.
Female Northern Cardinal
Immature Northern Cardinal on left and Immature Male molting into adult plumage on right.
(Click to zoom on any image)
Cardinals may not be rare or exotic, but they are certainly one of the most beautiful of garden birds, and I hope you enjoyed learning a little more about them. Next time you are in the garden as the day draws to a close, listen for their evening songs. And if you have spotted any other birds in your garden or elsewhere that you’d like to know more about, please let me know. I’ve been around ornithologists for many years, and have learned quite a bit from them. I’d love to share, and know where to get answers if you ask about a bird I’m not familiar with. I’m not bad at ID-ing birds from photos, too. Just give a holler. And look for more posts on birds and other garden critters in the weeks ahead.
Pictures found online.