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~ The Northern Cardinal ~

Cardinals are endearing for reasons that go beyond their sports car colouring, fast and agile flight, and nervous flicking of their long tails at the feeders.

They remind us of ourselves: the mated pairs form strong bonds, with the male taking on a significant proportion of responsibility. Early in the spring, the male declares its terrority from a high vantage point: "yuwit, yuwit, yuwit, wit-wit-wit-wit-wit!" Each individual male has its own variation of the cardinal song - but the females are vigorous singers are well, and they will duet...

When a pair forms, the male will take the female on a tour of the resources in the terroritory he defends. With luck you might be able to observe the courtship dance, when he sings directly in front of her, rocking his body back and forth to show off his striking plumage, and he will feed her like a baby. They continually keep track of their positioning with a loud, metallic chirp at regular intervals. They will chirp back and forth while one bird feeds and the other one scouts, and will emit chirps at a faster rate when flying off, presumably because their coordinates require more frequent "refreshes."

Both birds will share the task of raising the brood, and they are quite adaptable in their interpretation of the male/female distribution of labour. While the female will build the nest in thick underbrush and incubate the eggs, the male will watch out for the family, and feed the female. After the eggs have hatched, and if the conditions are right, the female may start building a second nest, while the male raises the young from the first nest, and continues to feed the female. When the fledglings are ready to leave the nest, the male provides flying lessons and takes the young ones on a tour of the surroundings before they go on their own. By the end of the summer, the male cardinal has worked himself ragged, his breast is dulled with a speckling of brown feathers, his crest thin and jagged and his voice silent.

They can live up to 15 years in the wild.

They rank highly in the hearts of backyard birders. With her candy-pink beak, fawn robe and dark mask the females are hardly less attractive than the males. The young are easy to recognize as their beaks are slate-grey.

Recommended Feeding Practices

Though the birds come readily to feeders dispensing black sunflower seeds or white millet, you might feed 200 sparrows, pigeons, squirrels and grackles for every cardinal visitor! So feeding cardinals is more about keeping out the more aggressive birds.

One easy trick involves timing. Cardinals visit feeders most assiduously in the early and late hours of the day. Simply put out only a handful of seeds around suppertime, enough so that there will be leftovers overnight ready for the early birds. That will reduce the number of undesirable introduced species such as sparrows, without detriment to the native cardinals.

Cardinal feeders with counter-balances that exclude lighter and heavier birds are difficult to set up (cardinals are heavier in the south, lighter in the north) as experimentation is required to find the correct counterweight, and the wire spring is weak, becomes unattached regularly and renders the feeder ineffective.

Many backyard bird feeders wishing to favour the cardinal have switched to safflower seed (looks like a small, cream-colored sunflower seed), whose bitter taste puts off many undesirable bird species as well as squirrels.

Before becoming wildly excited about safflower seed, it should be pointed out that the cardinals do not have a preference for this unfamiliar food, and may take some time to get used to it, but will eventually eat it, especially when they realize that they have the feeder to themselves, save for the occasional chickadee or blue jay! When offering a "second choice" food, it becomes more important that the feeder be well situated and comfortable. This is easily accomplished.

Cardinals are ground feeders but will readily accept a stable platform at a height of 1.5-2 meters. They like to approach the feeder from tangled brush, densely branched trees, and telephone wires. Though the birds tend to feed singly, select a platform that can accomodate more birds, so that you can observe the male showing off the feeders in his territory to a female in the spring, and doing the same for his fledglings in the summer.

The youngs are entirely raised on insects; if the cardinals seem to abandon your feeder for a while, it may just be that they are looking for juicy, 6 or 8-legged tidbits.

Northern Cardinal Links

USGS - Information on the northern cardinal by the US Geological Survey.
Familiar Birds - Jam-packed with information, highly recommended.
Chipper Woods Bird Observatory - Close up photographs of hand-held birds.
Wild Bird Photography Library - A collection of cardinal photographs submitted to the Birding Forum.
Michael's Photo Library - A page of cardinal photographs.
The Blue Jay's Garden - Canadian mail order source for cardinal feeders.
Canada Gardens - An article about the Droll Yankee Family bird feeders.

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