The Red Bird

The vibrant red color and the rich song of the cardinal have captivated naturalists for centuries. In the late 1800s, naturalist William Bengley wrote, “The melody of its song is said to resemble that of a nightingale. In spring it sits on the top of the highest trees and with its loud and piercing notes makes the forest echo.”

Likewise, James Audubon wrote, “Go where it may, it is always welcome and everywhere a favorite, so rich its song, and so brilliant its color.”

So appreciated were cardinals for their cheerful song and stunning red color that during the late 1800s they were trapped and sold as cage birds for $10, and they would sing for the pleasure of their owners. Fortunately, that practice was outlawed in 1918 with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Formerly found only in southern states, cardinals were first observed in the lower Hudson Valley of New York in 1910, and then only during the summer months. During the 1940s cardinals began expanding their range throughout the northeast. When I moved to the Finger Lakes Region in the late 1960s, cardinals were common during the summer, and as the practice of winter bird feeding exploded, so, too, did the number of cardinals that stayed year-round. Today, they are one of the most widely recognized birds of the region and are the official state bird of seven states.

Male cardinals, often called the “red bird,” are scarlet to crimson red. It is believed they were named “cardinal” because their color matches the distinctive red robes worn by Catholic cardinals. Studies have shown that the brighter the red plumage of males, the more success they have in attracting females. However, that carries risks. Predatory hawks are not colorblind and are also attracted by their bright red color. Such dangers notwithstanding, their vibrant red color against the pure white of a new-fallen snow is a sight to behold.

Female cardinals are a more subdued buff-brown with tinges of red on the wings, tail feathers and crest. Both sexes are adorned with prominent head crests, black faces and chins, and orange-to-red conical bills that are ideal for feeding on seeds.

The singing of cardinals varies with circumstances and with the changing seasons. Only a few female North American songbirds sing, and female cardinals are among those that do. Once breeding territories have been established in the spring, females actively sing duets with their mates. Their most common song is the oft repeated, “Purty-purty-purty.”

When alarmed and danger is near, cardinals warn others with a sort of metallic chirp, “Tsink-tsink-tsink.” I recently observed a male cardinal in my yard, chirping louder and louder and then becoming extremely agitated. Soon, a red fox emerged from the woods directly beneath the cardinal. I was surprised that he continued to chirp even after the fox left, but I shortly discovered the reason for his continued agitation: a broad winged hawk was perched in a nearby tree.

Cardinals prefer shrubby forest edges and nest in dense tangles of shrubs and vines. They are monogamous. The female builds the nest with vines, grass and hair. She lays two to five white eggs speckled with brown dots and produces multiple broods each summer.

Male cardinals are studs. They aggressively protect their territory by fighting off intruders. I have often seen males fly into windows and car mirrors where they see their own reflections. They are attempting to drive off what they believe is another male intruding on their territory.

Once hatched, young birds develop quickly. After they fledge, both sexes look similar to the adult female. In early fall they begin molting, and the young males start developing their characteristic bright red feathers.

I enjoy watching cardinals at my bird feeder, and I am intrigued by the interaction between the sexes, especially how the behavior of the male changes from season to season. For example, during the winter the male seems concerned only with his own well being, filling his belly with sunflower seeds and chasing away other birds – even his own mate. As winter wanes and the days get longer, the male and his mate arrive at the feeder together, and the male is much more tolerant.

Ahhh – but when spring arrives and love is in the air, the stud changes his behavior. He sings duets with his mate and when they come to the feeder together, the female perches nearby, fluttering, looking pretty – generally doing what ladies do. After the display, the male picks up a sunflower seed, brings it to his mate, and after tenderly touching beaks, he carefully places the seed in her mouth. This thoughtful and tender affection continues until breeding is complete. My wife suggests that there is a lesson to be learned here, boys. Pay attention and learn from the behavior of male cardinals – but only from spring through summer.


by Bill Banaszewski