The Northern Cardinal
by William McReynolds
This bird is close to the human heart, the state bird in seven states. We revere Cardinals and have made them mascots of many sports teams from grade school to the major leagues including the St. Louis, Arizona, Ball State and Wesleyan Cardinals. We take them as totems and even have a College of Cardinals, appropriately attired, in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are among the most depicted songbirds: How many Christmas cards, sealed with holiday hope and good cheer, have been sent featuring an image of a male Northern Cardinal on a snowed-covered pine branch? The photo above, in the public domain, is a favorite desktop background.
The male cardinal will examine you closely with a cocked eye and lowered shoulder. His distinctive song is a high, crisp tik tik or an extended, rising twik. His clarion call, a staccato outburst amidst silent gray tree trunks, is a broadcast announcement of location and intention. According to Sibley, this call is a “series of high, clear, sharp, mostly slurred whistles woit woit woit chew chew chew chew chew or pichew pichew tiw tiw tiw tiw tiw tiw with many variations.”
Unusual among songbirds, the female of the species sings as well as the male. Her summer song is more subtle and complicated than his. Rare in the avian world, she will sing while on her nest, signaling her attentive mate to bring food in the form of seeds and berries.
Cardinals form strong pair bonds and become endearing, enduring, couples. They are often seen together, always him in the lead, both avid tail flippers. They are attentive parents. She constructs the nest with him bringing her twigs and vines and he subsequently feeds her beak-to-beak as she tends their clutch. Some pairs stay together during the winter and mate again in the next spring and summer.
Cardinals occupy backyards and parks and forest edges across the Eastern U.S. from Maine to Florida and west to Colorado and Arizona. Cardinal pairs live just above ground in shrubs and bushes and low-lying branches. The oldest known Cardinal lived 15 years and 9 months, impressive for a winter resident.
Happy December birding and Season’s greetings from your local Audubon chapter. The Highlands Plateau Audubon Society, focused on enjoying and preserving birds and their habitats, is a Chapter of the National Audubon Society and a 501(c)(3) organization. For information on all our activities and membership, please visit highlandsaudubonsociety.org.