I’ve been watching the buildup to today’s inauguration with a sense of deja vu. There is just something very familiar about a visage so orange and a coiffure so wild, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then it hit me.
Northern cardinals also tweet a lot. Well, it’s more like a chip. You’d think such a colorful bird would be seen very easily, but they can be elusive. I spent some time with my mother in New Hampshire over the holidays. She’s been in her house for decades, and she told me she has never seen a cardinal there. Which was weird, because I could hear one chipping just down the road. I brought back photos to prove it.
Another similarity: Cardinals are pugnacious and easily irritated. Male cardinals will try to dominate a feeder, chasing off competitors. On territory, both genders are prone to fighting their own reflections in house windows, car mirrors, and hub caps, to the point of exhausting and injuring themselves.
That same territorial drive makes them devoted mates. Cardinals are monogamous, mating with the same partner each season, and generally staying together in the offseason. The female picks the location and builds the nest. The male brings her food during the two weeks of incubation, and both parents raise the kids. The chicks can fly about ten days after hatching, but they’ll continue to be fed for several more weeks. When they’re old enough, mom and dad chase them off.
Despite their territorial aggressiveness, cardinals sometimes band together in winter, sharing food resources. Some are brighter than others, and studies suggest that the brighter males feed and breed more successfully, outcompeting duller males. Cardinals get their red color from carotene pigments found in the berries and grains they eat. Their large bills enable them to crunch grains and seeds easily, and they supplement with insects and snails.
The name “northern cardinal” suggests that there is a southern cardinal. Although there is no such bird by that name, there are two other members of the cardinal genus that range farther south. The pyrrhuloxia is nicknamed the desert cardinal, making its home in the dry mesquite habitats of the southwestern United States and Mexico. It looks like a gray version of our cardinal, with red only in the face, breast, and some feather edges. The name pyrrhuloxia comes from the Greek, describing its color and bill shape. This is what happens when egg-headed biologists make a drinking game out of nomenclature.
From Colombia to Venezuela, there is a bird called the vermillion cardinal. If you think the northern cardinal is red, you ought to see this fellow.
Cardinals don’t molt into a dull autumn plumage. They remain spectacularly colored year round, making them so popular that they were once captured and sold as cage birds. This practice ended in 1916 with passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The northern cardinal is the official state bird in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina.
I am often asked how to attract cardinals to backyards in Maine. If they are already in the general neighborhood, it’s possible. They gather much of their food on the ground, so they prefer to feed off a flat, solid surface. Platform feeders work. Perch feeders that swing in the breeze don’t. Feeders placed more than five feet above the ground make them nervous. Black oil sunflower seeds are the universal preference for most birds in Maine, and cardinals relish them. They also appreciate cracked corn and safflower seeds, but sunflower seeds will suffice.
The challenge in attracting cardinals is that they are picky about their habitat preferences. Because cardinals are ground feeders, they are vulnerable to cats and will avoid areas where outdoor cats are on the prowl. They also shun the deep forest, opting for thick forest edges and swamps. In Maine, they prefer settled areas that contain shrubbery, especially berry bushes. They seek thickets and dense conifers for nesting and roosting. Cardinals are typically suburban birds, but they do move out into settled areas of the countryside. Just by my own observation, they are spreading and increasing throughout eastern and northern Maine.
In January, cardinals are semi-secretive, visiting feeders when necessary, and otherwise chipping from secluded spots in the neighborhood. In just a few more weeks, males will start whistling their chew-chew-chew, or cheer-cheer-cheer, or purty-purty-purty songs. It means that breeding season has arrived, and it’s finally time to Make America Mate Again.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.