Birds of the Glebe, Flamboyant Northern Cardinal

The female Northern cardinal is less flamboyant than her male counterpart but equally beautiful.
Photo: Jeanette Rive

By Jeanette Rive

Though March came in like a lion, the days are getting longer and some migrant songbirds are already heading north. Birds are responding to the change in light and preparing for their journey and the nesting season. What brighter and more cheerful sound of approaching spring than the song of the Northern cardinal? The unmistakable bright red songbird will sit atop a tree and sing one of its more than 28 songs, even though it’s cold and snow is still on the ground.

The Northern cardinal can be seen in our backyards all year. Its diet of seeds and berries is available year-round, so unlike birds dependent on insects, there is no need to migrate.

Named by American colonists after the red cloaks of cardinals, the Northern cardinal is one of our most frequently seen birds and the most visible, its intense red contrasting with the white snow. One of North America’s most populous birds, it was originally found mostly in the southern U.S. but moved north over the last century. The first one was spotted in Ontario in 1896. There are several species of cardinals, but the Northern cardinal ventures furthest north, hence its name. It has adapted well to suburban and urban life, favouring shrubs and trees in our gardens and happily feeding on sunflower seeds from our feeders.

A striking feature of the cardinal is its feathered crest, which is raised and pointed when the bird is agitated and barely visible when the bird is resting. Most birds moult towards the end of summer, shedding old, worn feathers. The cardinal will often lose all its head feathers at once and look very bald and pitiful with grey saggy skin; luckily, the new feathers grow in quickly before it gets too cold. The cardinal’s bright red colour is due to its diet – the pigments from foods such as berries and grapes are digested and carried through the bloodstream to the feather follicles where they crystallize and colour the feathers. If you see a cardinal with less bright feathers, its diet has been lacking in these foods.

Cardinals are monogamous. Pairs will stay together through the winter and nesting season, although about 20 per cent of pairs split up by the next season. The male’s songs are more recognizable, but the female will also sing in spring before the start of nesting and later while in the nest to communicate with her partner. You may have seen a male feeding seeds to a female – that’s part of the courtship as he demonstrates his ability to find food for his family. The female builds the nest, a cup-shaped structure lined with grass and hair and well hidden in shrubs, and she will typically lay three or four eggs. The female incubates the eggs, but both parents feed the nestlings which will fledge between 9 and 11 days after hatching. Then it’s up to the male to continue the feeding while the female prepares herself for another brood – cardinals can rear two to three broods a year.

During nesting season, the males are very defensive of their territory, singing loudly to announce their presence, and they will attack intruding males. They will even attack their reflection in a window or mirror. They usually live for three or four years, though a banded cardinal in Pennsylvania was found to be 15 years old!

Fun fact 1: A flock of cardinals is called a conclave, a college or even a Vatican!

Fun fact 2: There have been rare sightings of a dual-sex Northern cardinal – one side, bright red male; the other, light brown female. This genetic mishap, called bilateral gynandromorphy and more common in insects than birds, occurs during the first division of a fertilized cell when one cell becomes male and the other becomes female. The adult bird can mate with a male and produce eggs, or it can mate with a female. It probably occurs in other birds as well, but it stands out more with cardinals because males and females are so distinct.

As March and April warm up, keep your ears open for the familiar song of the Red-winged blackbird announcing its return. To identify a bird song, download the Merlin bird app, created by The Cornell Lab. It’s free and a wonderful resource when even just out in your garden.

Jeanette Rive is a Glebe bird enthusiast and Glebe Report proofreader.

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