Thursday, November 27, 2014

Adventures in Bird Feeding, Part 3: The Northern Cardinal
by Adele Barger Wilson, author of Bonding with the Barn Swallows
Photos and text © 2014 Adele Wilson

The most brightly colored bird species that makes its home year-round in the eastern and central portions of the U.S. is the Northern Cardinal.  The Northern Cardinal is one of several species whose name begins with “Northern”, not because these birds live solely in the Northern U.S., but rather, because they are common to North America rather than to South America.  But most people know the Northern Cardinal simply as "the Cardinal".

The male Cardinal exhibits a bright vermillion red, while the female Cardinal’s plumage is duller, blending more readily into the environment.  The natural camouflage of the female is perhaps Mother Nature’s way of protecting the potential egg bearers of this species in order to ensure its preservation.  In the photo to the left, the female is in the foreground with the male in the background.

During mating season, which begins in late winter to early spring, adult male Cardinals who do not have mates will compete with other males for territory.  They will sometimes peck at and attack their reflections in car windows, thinking that their reflections are other male Cardinals who are seeking to intrude.

Male Cardinals will often proclaim their territories by perching on a tree, a fence, or a wire and sounding a beautiful song.  Early last spring I was most fortunate to hear that song almost every morning.  I would venture out on my porch, and there he would be:  Our resident male Cardinal perching in plain site and singing his familiar melody.

Once a male finds a female who accepts him as a potential mate, the female will show him a possible nesting site.  If the male does not like that site, the female will show him another one.  This will continue until the two birds agree on a nesting site.

The male will sometimes bring some nesting material to the site, but it is the female who does most of the nest-building.  A typical clutch consists of two to five eggs, and the female incubates them for eleven to thirteen days.  While the female is incubating, the male brings her food.

The young stay in the nest for seven to thirteen days and are fed by both parents.  Once the babies fledge from the nest, one or both parents continue to feed them for up to two weeks.

Sometimes the female will start building another nest while the male is still feeding the fledglings.  By the time the female is laying and incubating eggs, the male will again feed her at the nest.

Depending on the climate of the region, the nesting season of the Cardinal can last into September.  After the nesting season is completed, the adult birds begin to molt.  During this time period, the plumage of these birds can look rather scruffy, as in the photo on the right.  However, by the time that winter arrives, the birds have regained their full plumage. 

In my experience, the best way to attract Cardinals during the winter is by putting up suet cakes that contain black oil sunflower seeds.  These birds absolutely love this type of seed and can crack the shells in their beaks immediately after picking them from the cakes.  Unlike other birds, Cardinals do not have to fly to another location to crack a seed shell.
The suet cake pictured on the right contains black oil sunflower seeds and is perfect for Cardinals.  You can click on the image to find out more about these suet cakes and how to order them.

I once viewed a photo on Facebook of several bright red male Cardinals perching simultaneously on a snow-covered tree.  Having learned that male Cardinals are territorial, I wondered how these birds could co-exist so peacefully without chasing each other away.

It recently dawned on me that, since the Cardinals were perching together during the winter season, they may well have all been juveniles.  In that case, they had not yet experienced the mating season when males begin to compete against each other for territory.

On the morning of November 15th, for the very first time, I witnessed this type of scenario myself.  Three male Cardinals were perching on various branches of the tree at the edge of my driveway, the tree that the Mockingbirds had been guarding for many months.

Unfortunately, just as I was running inside to grab my camera, a Mockingbird flew to the tree and chased the Cardinals away.  Apparently, the Mockingbirds were still guarding that tree and the suet feeder hanging from it.

The following morning, I noticed three Cardinals on the mimosa tree, only this time they were all dull-colored!  My first thought was that the birds were all adult females, but I later realized that they may well have been juveniles.  One Cardinal was feeding from the suet cake, while the other two were perched on higher branches of the tree.

As I looked through binoculars at the Cardinal perching highest on the tree, I sighted a Mockingbird also perching on a high branch!  However, the Mockingbird was not disturbing the Cardinals.  This made me wonder if the Mockingbirds are refraining from taking over the mimosa tree.

Yesterday, the answer seemed clear.  We had our first snow storm of the season, and, while the snow was falling, a Cardinal was eating from the feeder on the mimosa tree, undisturbed by Mockingbirds.

So I am hoping that the mimosa tree continues to be fully available to the Cardinals and other birds this winter.  More information about my battles with the Mockingbirds, can be found at:

Adventures in Bird Feeding, Part 1:  Keeping Peace with the Mockingbirds
Update on the Mockingbirds - Are they still interfering? 

If you would like to read more about the Northern Cardinal, I highly recommend this book by Gary Ritchison:
Wild birds are not dumb!  They are sentient beings who often communicate specific things to humans.  You can read about how I determined this to be a fact based on my intimate experiences with Barn Swallows as described in my book, Bonding with the Barn Swallows.

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