The jovial cardinal is a common sight in winter landscapes. Forming close-knit groups during the colder months, these scarlet songbirds easily stand out amongst the whites and browns of a chilled backyard. While it may seem like cardinals are only in the area during winter, they do not migrate at all and are some of the most permanent residents of the forest borders of eastern North America. The cardinals you see in your area are very much your year-long neighbors. Most only live within a mile of where they were born, using their stout and powerful beaks to feed on a wide variety of seeds, berries, and insects. Even though they are easily drawn to bird feeders, especially using sunflower and safflower seeds, cardinals also perform some critical tasks while hidden away in dense briar thickets and shrubs.
A Healthy Hue
The cardinal native to eastern North America, the Northern Cardinal, is currently involved in controversy as some scientists are pushing for a split into multiple separate species. These birds originally had a much smaller range centered in the southeastern states. They have been slowly working their way northward, however, and with the aid of human-supplied bird feeders and urbanized forests cardinals are now common along the east coast all the way into Canada. This has lead to their success in charming countless American bird lovers. Cardinals are the state bird of 7 US states including North Carolina, using their brilliant plumage to capture the attention of any wandering eye. Male cardinals are almost entirely red including their impressive mohawk-like crest. The only exception is on and around their face, where they possess a black or gray mask. Females are a much more subtle brown overall with red and gray highlights around the crest and face. Male cardinal coloration is thought to be a way to judge a subject’s viability as a mate- the brighter the red, the healthier the bird. Recent studies into how exactly cardinals make red feathers has shed some light into the genetic makeup of many other birds as well. It seems that cardinals use carotenoids obtained through their diets to create their telltale hue, however many of the carotenoids obtained through seeds are yellow. Cardinals utilize a specific enzyme to turn these yellow pigments to red. Interestingly enough, scientists found that many other birds use these same enzymes in their eyes in order to help them see colors. It seems that in more ways than one, being red as a bird is simply a matter of expression.
Cardinals are believed to mate for life, and they use complex songs to communicate with their partner. Young cardinals are mostly taught songs by their parents, and these songs have been found to have regional dialects in different parts of the country. Even female cardinals sing, which is rare for a songbird. Usually, the female sings while she is sitting on her nest in order to let her mate know to bring back food ASAP. During child rearing it is the male’s duty to keep the family fed. This can take a gargantuan effort, as their young are fed mostly insects at a rate sometimes approaching 10 times an hour. Cardinals normally have multiple broods per year, and they provide indispensable pest control through this feeding alone. Scientists recently discovered that cardinals are excellent allies in the fight against West Nile virus as well. It seems that these birds are very resistant to the virus and are a favorite target for hungry mosquitos. By taking one for the team and being magnets for these insects, cardinals help to keep West Nile from spreading as quickly to humans.