Have you started gathering Holiday greeting cards and updating your mailing list? Ready to make the Post Office deadlines yet? Of course, this is somewhat passe for many as we send a text, email, FB post or other instantaneous form of messaging. Or maybe you plan Skype or Zoom chats to keep in touch with your loved ones. Somehow, I still love getting those cheery holiday cards, even if I am not so good at getting them out! One bird that often features prominently is the northern cardinal. For those living in North America, they are a delightful pop of colour in that sometimes very white landscape. For those in the Southern Hemisphere, they are a delightful bird on the card we are sending to Aunty Muriel! So, let's dive into northern cardinal life and biology.
The male cardinals' bright red plumage really adds colour to the relatively long months of winter. He also starts to sing very early in the year, adding a cheerful sound to that quiet, snow-covered world. From late January into February, the male cardinal sings from high perches to let everyone know he is claiming this territory for himself and his mate. His mate, possibly of many years standing, will join him in song somewhat later in the season as they get down to the business of setting up a nest. Some years, they can continue to breed right to the end of October. Dad does little during the approximately twelve days of incubation for their first clutch of eggs; however, he then works diligently to care for the growing brood, bringing countless numbers of bugs and caterpillars to those hungry mouths. He then continues to care for them alone after the youngsters leave their nest at about ten days of age. Mum, meanwhile, is occupied with laying another clutch of eggs.
Those offspring can then become cherished members of the bird feeder pack for many years to come if they get past that first tough year. That's often when the rehabilitation community gets to meet these lovely birds with the bite from hell! Just look at their beaks. The first year of a bird's life is fraught with every difficulty, from getting enough food and learning to evading predators and cars and finding their own territory; the list goes on. This means some eighty per cent probably don't make it to their first birthday. While on the topic of age, the cardinals that do survive are very long-lived, with the record being nearly sixteen years. So, the bird singing on top of your pine tree probably is the same one that has been around for some years.
Cardinals have a wide range of foods they eat on a daily basis, choosing from some seventy different items comprising plants, insects and fruits. The mainstay of their diet is plants, including seeds, which they crack with their strong beak and jaws (hence their bite!). They also love black and striped sunflower seeds, and this is one of many areas where hosting backyard feeding stations can make a difference in their lives. Setting up a feeder for sunflower seeds is a very rewarding activity. It also means that they get high-energy snacks in the tough times during northern winters. For the gardeners, cardinals also hoover down lots of insects, many of which are nuisance bugs. To provide cover and nest sights, evergreen trees and cedar hedges are great additions to the garden. Natural food sources can include shrubs and vines such as sumac, dogwood, berries and wild grape vines; in fact, any seed-bearing plant is a potential food source.
Northern cardinals have expanded their range northwards over the past fifty years and are now a very common bird in many parts of Canada. Milder winters, backyard feeding stations and being able to rear two or three broods per year have all contributed to this expansion northwards.
Wildlife rehabilitators now admit these birds routinely in many regions. They often come in as nestlings after their nests are destroyed by wild weather or marauding cats. Cats also attack many juveniles and adults, often with fatal consequences, as many rehabilitation facilities record up to 50% of their admissions as a result of cat attacks. Life is tough on these gorgeous birds.
So enjoy either seeing them in the flesh or on your cards this holiday season, and if you can donate to your local wildlife rehabilitation centres, please do this to help ensure these, and all our beautiful birds, have a place to go for help.
Written by Dr Lynn Miller
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