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a female cardinal

Northern Cardinals

Sweet eye treats for all seasons

by Bob & Jorja Feldman

From the January, 2020 issue

Female birds are sometimes relegated to an also-mentioned role in avian field guides. This is not entirely without justification; in species where the male and female are not look-alikes, males frequently have stronger identification markings and the female's coloration is often drab and unexciting, at least from a human perspective. But this latter is not true across the entire bird spectrum and certainly not for northern cardinals.

Because the color palettes used by field guide writers are usually not very nuanced, we asked city ornithologist Juliet Berger how she would describe the female cardinal's coloration. "Caramel," she said, "caramel with a red beak and red in the crest, wings, and tail."

When a female cardinal chooses a mate, the brighter and redder he is, the better. With the red offset by a jet-black mask surrounding his eyes and beak, his look screams pizzazz.

The distinct crests and body configurations along with the unique coloration of both sexes make cardinals a pair of easily recognizable local birds. What do cardinal children look like? Our image of what looks like a pale female is actually a juvenile. We cannot tell you whether it is a male or female. Neither can Berger, who says we'd need to wait until after the bird molts to tell.

Berger, who has listened to a lot of birdsong, is especially fond of cardinal music. Both male and female cardinals sing sweetly. The male may vocalize to woo a female or defend his territory. The female may call to her mate while sitting on a nest.

She spends a lot of time there: mating season can last into September, and she can produce up to four clutches of three to five eggs, with a new flimsy nest built for each occasion. While cardinals are described as monogamous, it is possible that some of those eggs are fertilized by interested third parties, leading to speculation that this is a strategy of wily females (and males)

...continued below...

to increase the strength of their bloodlines.

Backyard bird feeders are a great place to see cardinals. We hang out two large tube feeders filled with several pounds of black oil sunflower seed in our backyard. Berger uses a platform feeder and sees more cardinals feeding at the same time. (They are not territorial outside of the mating season.)

If a backyard is not available, local parks and Nichols Arboretum are good places to see cardinals. Berger advises to look generally at locations where there are low trees and shrubbery.

Despite heavy predation, cardinals still do well in suburban areas, thanks to their vigorous reproduction. They have an honored symbolic role in many cultures, including Christianity and Native American mythology. And every year, the winter holidays bring out an abundance of quaint little signs with cardinal images, cardinal statues, and cardinal greeting cards.     (end of article)

[Originally published in January, 2020.]


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