Even if you’re not an avid birdwatcher, it’s hard to take your eyes off a Northern Cardinal.
The male is easy to spot, especially on a leafless branch, with his brilliant red plumage, black facial markings and conspicuous crest.
The female has more subdued coloration, with a brownish-olive body and reddish accents on the crest, tail and wings.
The species is common throughout the eastern and central United States, and it’s been extending its range northward into Canada.
Unlike many other songbirds, Northern Cardinals don’t migrate, and they’re common visitors to feeders during the winter. Aside from sunflower seeds, a favorite food, their diet includes a wide variety of fruits and insects.
Males begin to sing and defend territories in late winter and early spring.
Actually, in contrast to many other birds, females also sing during the breeding season. The songs of male and female cardinals are similar to the human ear, though acoustic studies have revealed subtle differences.
After mating, pairs nest in shrubs, vines or small trees.
Typically the male gathers supplies and the female builds the nest, a carefully fashioned structure about four inches across made of twigs, leaves, bark and grasses.
The female incubates the eggs, but both parents feed the nestlings. Cardinals may raise two or more broods each year.
Toward the end of the breeding season, some Northern Cardinals may start looking scruffy, with crests that seem a bit worse for wear. Rarely, a bird may lose so many feathers that it looks nearly bald. What causes these conditions is unclear, but some scientists suggest that cardinals with bad hair days at the end of the breeding season may simply be molting. Totally bald birds may be suffering from parasite infections, nutritional deficiencies, or other stresses.
However, despite occasional feather losses, cardinals can be quite long-lived, compared to other songbirds. The oldest Northern Cardinal on record was over 15 years old.
Vicky McMillan, a retired biologist formerly at Colgate University,lives on Hilton Head Island. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.