More than 2,000 species of birds inhabit North America. It would be interesting to know which one species among them is most widely known and recognized by Americans. Candidates might be the bald eagle, or the robin, but looking at the wintry scene outside my window now, toward our bird feeder, I’d bet on the cardinal.
A male cardinal is perched there, waiting for an opening to dart in and grasp a sunflower seed. His deep black face set against that brilliant red plumage that covers his entire body is so striking you can’t confuse it with any other bird. And the distinctive crest further cements him in the mind. The crest suggests a ceremonial mitre, worn by the red-robed Catholic Cardinals for which the bird is named. Almost everyone knows the cardinal, or “redbird” as they’re sometimes called.
Cardinals occupy a huge range across the eastern half of the United States, extending from New England southward through eastern Mexico to the Yucatan peninsula. The center of their range anchors on the nearby Ohio Valley. A western offshoot extends across Texas, southern New Mexico and southern Arizona.
Cardinals don’t migrate. They are year-round residents wherever they occur, favoring brushy woodland edges, thickets, and the dense and diverse landscaping around suburban homes. That adaptability to human-altered landscapes, plus their comfort with birdfeeders, has enabled the cardinal to become one of the most abundant and secure songbirds on the continent.
Cardinals shun deep woods, and in Pennsylvania they are uniformly common everywhere, except on the heavily forested northern plateau and along the crests of the wooded ridges of the Laurel Highlands.
Cardinals are so prominent in American life that seven different states—West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, Indiana, and Illinois have chosen it as their official state bird. Interestingly, those states form a contiguous band across the center of the cardinal’s range. Even professional and collegiate sports teams pick the cardinal to represent themselves. There are probably others, but the St. Louis Cardinals (MLB), Arizona Cardinals (NFL) (moved from St. Louis), and Louisville Cardinals (NCAA) come to mind.
Cardinal pairs are popular on calendars and Christmas cards. While the male cardinal in its vivid plumage is responsible for the bird’s indelible image, the female has her own appeal. Her size, shape, and behavior are similar to the male, but her plumage, if duller, is more diverse. The female’s back and breast are brown-to-olive, with a wash of red across the throat, wings, and tail. Her crest is tipped with red, like the paint at the tip of an artist’s brush, and her bill is the same yellow-orange as the male’s.
Cardinal mates form a lifelong pair-bond that’s considered one of the strongest among birds. They remain in constant contact, singing to one another in clear, sharp whistles. The cardinal’s “pretty, pretty, pretty,” call on a silent winter morning is a treat of the season.
When we first moved to our home in the mountains, we marveled at the white female cardinal that visited our feeders each winter for three or four years. We knew she was female because she wasn’t entirely white but bore some of the olive-brown wash across her back. Also, we often saw her paired with an all-red male close by. We felt a void the winter she failed to return.
Not so much in winter, but certainly in spring and summer breeding season, male cardinals are highly territorial and will fight fiercely to drive off other cardinal intruders. Most summers one will fling itself tirelessly against our bathroom window from its perch in a rhododendron, trying to drive away its own reflection. Unknown to the valiant combatant, his rival image is equally determined.
Though the adults are primarily seed-eaters, they feed their young an exclusive diet of insects. One cardinal, banded and monitored by researchers, lived 16 years in the wild.
At the risk of wandering into the ornithological weeds, I long assumed the cardinal was a member of the huge worldwide grouping of birds known as finches. Further checking, though, reveals the cardinal is not considered a “true finch,” of the family Fringillidae. Though cardinals and true finches share many anatomical traits, especially the stout, cone-shaped bill so useful in cracking open seeds, cardinals are classed in their own family — Cardinalidae. This kind of thing tends to interest me, but sometimes such facts are more than you need to know. It’s probably better to just enjoy the sight of a cardinal pair accented against the winter snow. Admiration can be more powerful than fact.
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