By: Ron Kushner
We’ve been in our house for 12 years and my wife still shrieks with delight every time she sees the bright red feathers of a male cardinal in the trees or at our feeder. Everyone loves cardinals. It is the state bird for seven states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. The male northern cardinal is the only all-red crested bird.
The Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) can be found mainly in the eastern United States from southern Canada all the way through Texas to Mexico, Guatemala, the Yucatan Peninsula and Baja, California.
Cardinals do not migrate and remain year-round. Cardinal “couples” often stay together for life (but not always). They may stay together at breeding and nesting times only. Outside of the breeding season there could be many cardinals at your feeders. They generally are there in either early morning hours or evening as their colors don’t stand out so much in the snow and hawks can’t pick them out easily.
These birds can withstand intense winter cold. Somehow, they increase their metabolic rate while reducing their water loss. Cardinal courtship displays can occur as early as late January in even the coldest climates.
There are still many questions as to why some cardinals stay together and why many do not. If a mate dies, it is pretty certain that the other will find another mate. As mating progresses, males feed the females. They work together in selecting a nesting site. They also rarely fight with one another. However, during the breeding season, males will chase other males and females will chase other females away from their nesting area. They raise at least two broods a season and can go three.
Territorial fighting stops by late summer and in the fall, cardinal flocks start forming. These flock sizes vary according to weather, habitat, time of day and time of year. The flocks usually are made up of roughly equal numbers of males and females.
Cardinals, along with many other birds face many problems in the environment. Difficult winter weather conditions, predators and illness just to name a few. Predators include many varieties of snakes, crows, blue jays, cow birds, owls, hawks not to mention squirrels and chipmunks that eat their eggs and cats. Their lifespan could be 15 to 20 years but most don’t make it that long.
Their nests with eggs are normally well hidden in the dense foliage of shrubs, out-of-control vines such as wild grape or honeysuckle and many trees. Their territories vary in size from a small suburban plot to fields and woods of over 5 acres. Nesting takes place in spring and most of the summer. The nests are built by the females without much assistance from their mate and are rarely higher than 10 feet off the ground. Cowbirds can be a problem as they often lay their own eggs in cardinal nests.
Once the cardinal eggs hatch. the babies stay in the nest for about 10 days with both parents feeding them constantly with insects, spiders and other small invertebrates. Adult cardinals will eat seeds, berries and flower buds along with insects. However, their favorite is black-oil sunflower seed. They also eat safflower seed, millet, cracked corn and small fruits so most conventional packaged birdseed will suit them. The young can leave their nest but they generally don’t fly for at least another week and it could take over a month before they are actually on their own. The female gets to work on her next brood, building an entirely new nest.
If you are trying to attract cardinals with a feeder, make sure they have a platform with some place to stand. They can’t hang upside down like other small birds. Also, make sure you supply clean water for drinking and bathing. A bird bath is fine but keep it clean.
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