The Northern cardinal looks like a superhero but doesn't venture far.
Illustration by Robert Meganck
You can’t miss a cardinal. With its superhero getup of black mask on scarlet, the male of the species Cardinalis cardinalis thumbs its beak at subtlety: He is a splash of crimson upon your bird feeder, a flash of carnelian flitting from shrub to shrub. Even the less showy female is instantly recognizable for her red-accented, buff-colored coat and feathered mohawk (known as a crest). A cardinal perched on a snow-laden dogwood branch might seem to have been sent straight from nature’s marketing department.
Or Virginia’s. The Northern cardinal, after all, is our state bird, though you’ll pardon if it doesn’t go all giddy with the honor; six other states have laid claim to the bird as well, allowing it to edge out the Western meadowlark as the most popular state bird.
Before the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 put an end to the practice, cardinals were once in demand as caged birds, no doubt as much for their varied and generally pleasing song as for their bright color. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s resource-rich website, AllAboutBirds.org, the cardinal is one of the few North American songbird species in which the female as well as the male sings: cardinals are also known to have local “accents” to their song. Less mellifluous is the cardinal’s call, a sharp “chip, chip, chip,” which serves a variety of purposes—including rousing me at dawn on summer mornings when one of the locals persists in repeating it ad infinitum outside our open bedroom window.
Cardinals are decidedly local. As they don’t migrate, are territorial in nature, and, according to Cornell, are reluctant to fly and generally confine their travels to “short trips between thickets,” cardinals may pass their lives within a mile of where they were hatched. Their territoriality also explains one behavior that can puzzle and vex human neighbors—that the birds, male and female alike, may take issue with your reflective surfaces, attacking windows and automobile side view mirrors and even shiny bumpers. The cardinal that seems determined to fight your window apparently has mistaken its reflection for another cardinal, and may tirelessly wage battle with its illusory opponent for hours. A cardinal on my block virtually laid siege to a neighbor’s SUV, forcing the owner to festoon his vehicle with inflatable owls and fluttery Mylar streamers—generally to little avail.
Life doesn’t start easy for cardinals. As with many animals, making it out of the nest alive represents a considerable victory against a horde of predators including snakes, blue jays, squirrels and even chipmunks. Perhaps the most nefarious of the nest-raiders, though, is the brown-headed cowbird. In a slick piece of subterfuge—though rather a poor show of parenting—the cowbird lays its own egg in the nest of a cardinal (and of more than 220 other species of bird as well—the cowbird is an equal-opportunity parasite), sometimes also plucking out and tossing overboard one or more of the legitimate eggs. The cowbird egg hatches first, giving the interloper a head-start on any of its remaining pseudo-siblings, and the fact that junior fails to take after anyone else in the family apparently doesn’t raise suspicions in the unwitting foster parents who care for it as if it were their own. A YouTube video, “Cardinal feeds juv (sic) Cowbird,” shows a male cardinal rushing around trying to feed an insistent cowbird nearly its own size.
As a species, though, the cardinal seems to be thriving. Its range has crept steadily northward since the 19th century and now extends from Central America through to the southern edge of Canada. The cardinal’s spread is likely due in no small part to our presence: The birds like our shrubbery-dense gardens that offer inviting shelter and nesting sites, and they benefit from our bird feeders that offer a reliable source of food even in winter. Sunflower seeds are a particular favorite. Put some out this winter and watch for the cardinals. You’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em.