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Christmas Bird

He comes into our feeding grounds early on Christmas Day. Resplendent against the snow, he glows like a Christmas light. What is he doing here, among his drably suited brethren? Why isn’t he in the tropics with the other gaudily attired birds?

Once the northern cardinal was a southern bird. John James Audubon knew it as the “cardinal grosbeak” of Louisiana and South Carolina and declared that “in richness of plumage, elegance of motion, and strength of song, this species surpasses all its kindred.” James Lane Allen immortalized it in his book as THE KENTUCKY CARDINAL, and Virginia claimed it as its own with alternate names like “Virginia redbird” and “Virginia nightingale.” Naturalist/writer Henry David Thoreau never saw it around his Concord, Massachusetts’s home ground, because the first cardinal nested in Massachusetts in 1958, nearly a century after Thoreau’s death.

Here in Pennsylvania, cardinals were common in the southeastern and southwestern corners of the state by the late 1800s. Gradually, they moved north along the river valleys, reaching central Pennsylvania by 1912, Crawford County in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1928, and occupying the rest of the state by 1960, although they are scarce in heavily forested northcentral Pennsylvania.

Today cardinals are permanent residents throughout eastern and central North America from southern Canada to southern Mexico, northern Guatemala and Belize and west to Kansas, Oklahoma, and even southern portions of New Mexico and Arizona. In addition, they were successfully introduced in Hawaii, Bermuda, and California. Seven states claim the cardinal as their state bird–Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.

The cardinal is the quintessential generalist, living successfully in a wide range of habitats heavily impacted by humans. Instead of retreating when eastern forests were cut, cardinals began moving north, living in dense shrubbery planted in hedgerows and yards and actually preferring to forage on town and suburban lawns. They also live in shrubby, logged and second-growth forests, shrubby grasslands, and marsh edges.

Once the eastern forest cover was removed, the climate warmed up which also encouraged cardinals to go north. Then, humans started feeding birds in the winter, a final boon to north-moving cardinals that can survive an average minimum January temperature of five degrees Fahrenheit.

As anyone who feeds birds can attest, they come early in the morning and late in the afternoon on most winter days. The males are dominant, frequently chasing the females from food in late fall and early winter. Although many cardinals remain mated for life, they often join flocks of juveniles and adults in early autumn. Membership fluctuates but is usually between five and 20 and consists of equal numbers of males and females.

As the cold deepens, the size of the flock increases especially if there is abundant food and cover. Sometimes, cardinal flocks loosely associate with other species such as dark-eyed juncos, white-throated sparrows, tufted titmice, song sparrows, American tree sparrows, and American goldfinches.

Here on our central Pennsylvania mountain, favorite winter cardinal feeding areas are thickets of greenbrier and wild grapevines on sheltered south-facing slopes. No sight is lovelier on a winter day than that of a flock of cardinals against an azure winter sky eating grapes from vines high in the tree canopy.

On cold winter nights cardinals drop their body temperature three to six degrees and roost together in thick shrubbery or conifers to conserve heat. Last winter I realized that a cardinal roost existed in our Norway spruce grove, because on New Year’s Day I found a scattering of rosy-pink and gray female cardinal feathers there. Twenty-four days later, I flushed a barred owl from the grove and discovered another pile of cardinal feathers. On the eighth of February a third clump of cardinal feathers lay beneath the spruces. Had the culprit been the barred owl?

According to most sources I’ve checked, the major avian predators on adult cardinals are Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks and eastern screech owls. The latter sometimes kill cardinals on their night-time roosts. There was also at least one immature sharp-shinned hawk living in or near the grove throughout the winter.

Beside the second clump of feathers, I had noticed fox tracks, one of several mammal cardinal predators, and we had at least two feral cats in the area, still other cardinal killers, along with minks and weasels. As is often the case in the natural world, I could not definitively identify the culprit or culprits. All I knew was that for the first winter ever, after December we had no cardinals at the feeders until early March.

By then cardinals had been singing in the thickets since February 20. The pair that came into the feeders was already well into courtship mode although I didn’t see mate-feeding, an activity in which the male picks up a seed, hops over to the female, and, as she takes the food, they briefly touch beaks. But suddenly the dominant male was solicitous toward the female, and they both sang since female cardinals sing as well as males. They even engage in bouts of “countersinging,” when first one bird, usually the male, sings one phrase several times and then the other matches it. This type of singing is thought to synchronize and unify cardinal couples. When it is practiced between males, it helps to settle territorial disputes over each male cardinal’s two to 10-acre territory.

Once I even heard what sounded like a version of “countersinging” between a cardinal and a tufted titmouse. On a windy, partially sunny, early March day, I sat beneath a white oak tree on Dogwood Knoll.

“Pretty, pretty, pretty,” sang a cardinal.

“Peter, peter, peter” answered a titmouse.

For a few minutes the cardinal triumphed, singing seven “pretty” sequences to the titmouse’s one weak “peter.” Then the titmouse got his second wind and delivered a steady barrage of “peters” after every cardinal round. Finally, a second cardinal, probably the female, joined in with “cheer, cheer, cheer,” and the titmouse was vanquished.

Cardinal song begins in early February and waxes and wanes throughout the breeding period into August. Before new pairings take place, males may sing 150 to 200 or more songs in the dawn light. Females sing mostly before nesting or with the male through nest building. Males continue singing to a lesser degree during incubation by the female, and sing even less when feeding nestlings and fledglings.

That’s probably because the male is a busy, involved “husband” and “father,” feeding his mate every four or five minutes before nesting and once a minute when she is busy building her nest and laying her brown-speckled, olive-white, three to four eggs. He continues feeding her during the 12 to 13 day incubation period and is the major provider of food for his nestlings and fledglings.

She constructs the four-layered nest of stiff weed stems, leaves and/or plastic, grapevine bark, and rootlets in thick shrubbery, four to seven feet above ground at the edges of woods, in hedgerows or fence rows. Her favorite nesting shrubs are all invasives–Japanese honeysuckle, multiflora rose, and privet–although she will also use dense evergreens and native shrubbery.

The male accompanies her as she builds the nest, probably to protect her from predators and other males that might be interested in a little hanky-panky, known in the bird world as extra pair copulation. The nest-building takes as little as three and as long as nine days to finish.

Unfortunately, most cardinal nesting attempts are unsuccessful because of heavy predation on both eggs and nestlings by snakes, small mammals, particularly chipmunks and squirrels, and birds such as blue jays. But once they fledge, anywhere from 60 to 80 percent survive to adulthood. Fortunately, they have a long breeding period, from April 3 until August 16 in Pennsylvania, so they can produce as many as eight clutches. The cardinals’ motto should probably be, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

When the eggs do hatch, the young remain in the nest ten to 13 days. After fledging, they are dependent on their parents another 40 days. Mostly, they are fed insects even though the annual diet of cardinals consists of only 29% insects and 71% fruits and seeds. Cardinals eat at least 85 different insects and 77 plants. They especially like blackberry, raspberry and dogwood fruits and the seeds of wild grapes, smartweed, and bindweed. Other seed sources include sedges, foxtail, vetches, dock, sumac, vervain and tulip trees, as well as corn, oats, and oil sunflower. They also like the buds of trees, particularly elm and chokecherry, and they even drink sap from yellow-bellied sapsuckers’ tree wells.

Once the young learn to forage for themselves, they disperse probably no more than a mile from their parents’ territory, although a few banded young have been found as far as 100 miles away. By December they look just like their parents, and as soon as the adults start singing again, the juveniles listen, imitate, and finally learn to sing by April as beautifully as the older adults.

To me, cardinals epitomize a dignified beauty. That’s why the great Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus named the bird for red hatted and robed cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church–Loxia cardinalis. After several more changes, today its scientific name is Cardinalis cardinalis as if to emphasize its aristocratic bearing. To early twentieth century naturalist Neltje Blanchan, the cardinal grosbeak, as she called it, “appears to be a haughty autocrat…Bearing himself with a refined and courtly dignity, not stooping to soil his feet by walking on the ground like the more democratic robin, or even condescending below the level of the laurel bushes, the cardinal is literally a shining example of self-conscious superiority–a bird to call forth respect and admiration rather than affection.” But bird biographer and ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent probably sums up cardinal virtues best by writing that the cardinal possesses a “rare combination of good qualities, brilliant plumage, a rich and pleasing voice, beneficial food habits and devotion to its mate and family.”

For more information, the beautifully illustrated Northern Cardinal by Gary Ritchison published in 1997 by Stackpole Books should satisfy most cardinal admirers.

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