Bird Notes from West Houston

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Species Profile - Northern Cardinal

During the spring migration, excitement builds among birders because of the anticipation of seeing the brightly colored migrants such as the warblers, tanagers, vireos, orioles, buntings and grosbeaks. The colors of the birds are sometimes breathtaking. The migrants come and then the migrants go. Fortunately we have the Northern Cardinal to brighten our bird landscape when the others have moved on.

The Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis is one of the most popular feeder birds in the Houston area. People brighten up when talking about "their" cardinals. Those who move to new neighborhoods without appropriate cardinal habitat lament the absence of cardinals from their feeders. The Northern Cardinal (called "Northern" because there are other species of cardinals further south) is so popular that it has been named the state bird of seven states! That is more than any other bird.

The cardinal is 8 3/4 inches long with a wingspan of 12 inches. The male cardinal is brilliant red all over except for a black face. He sports a handsome red crest and a large, conical-shaped red bill. The female is mostly a warm brown with red highlights in her wings, crest and tail. She sports a bright orange bill. Juvenile cardinals look much the same as the female with less red, a black bill and lack the black face of the adults.

Cardinals begin establishing nesting territory in the late winter. There may have been a large flock of cardinals in backyards throughout the winter, but that will be reduced to a pair in the spring. Male cardinals aggressively defend their territory from intruders. They are known to attack their own reflections in windows and car mirrors. Occasionally females will be as aggressive with other female cardinals or her reflection. The male will begin courting the female after establishing his territory. He will sing softly to her and keep in constant contact with her through calls. Those with feeders have no doubt seen the male cardinal crack a sunflower seed and feed it to the female.

The female builds the nest from two to twelve feet, usually four to five feet, in thick shrubs, trees, vines or hedges. The nest is a loosely woven cup made of grasses, weeds, vines, leaves and small twigs. Anywhere from two to five eggs are laid, usually three. The eggs are off-white to bluish with dark brown splotches. The female incubates the eggs for twelve to thirteen days. When the young hatch, they are altricial. The female broods them constantly for the first two days. The young are in the nest from nine to ten days. When the young leave the nest, both parents bring them food unless the female is starting a second brood in which case the young are fed by the male. The young are under the parents' care for three to four weeks after leaving the nest.

At feeders, cardinals love to eat oil sunflower. They also eat safflower, striped sunflower, shelled peanuts, sunflower hearts and occasionally suet. Their favorite feeders are ones that are flat, open and stable. Tray feeders and tube feeders with trays are some of the favorites. Quite often, cardinals are the first birds seen at the feeders in the morning and last ones to be seen in the evening. Cardinals often give a short, metallic chip call at the feeders.

My favorite cardinal story is from a winter morning in my yard in Mansfield, TX. The leaves were off the mesquite trees giving no cover for the male cardinal that frequented my feeders. Suddenly, a Cooper's Hawk flew into the yard. The cardinal flew to the nearest tree and stayed as still as possible. The bright red plumage stood out brilliantly against the bland landscape. The Cooper's Hawk was 25 feet away keeping an eye on the situation. The cardinal did not move a muscle. After ten minutes, the hawk flew away. The cardinal remained motionless for two more minutes before moving his head to make sure the danger had passed. Then he flew to the feeder and resumed his breakfast, no doubt telling all his friends of the great hiding job he had done when the Cooper's Hawk flew into the yard!

- Paul

1 Comments:

At 5:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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