The Northern Cardinal

The Northern Cardinal

Cardinalis cardinalis (Linnaeus)

By Carolyn Gritzmaker

Ask anyone what their favorite bird is and more often than not, the answer will be the redbird, or cardinal.  With his brilliant red coloring, the male is easily seen and adds a bright splash of color to even the dullest landscape.

The Northern Cardinal is a common to abundant permanent resident in Ellis County.  Just how abundant becomes clear in the winter months when they flock together.  Where food is plentiful, it is not unusual to find 40 or more cardinals in one location, though a more common flock size is around ten birds.

In January, cardinals can be heard in full song, and by late February the flocks will begin to scatter and the birds form territories.  These will range in size from 3to 10 acres, and will be proclaimed with song from prominent perches.  A fact not widely known is that both the male and female cardinals sing.  In early morning, the male and female will perch in different areas of their territory and sing a lovely duet.  First the male will sing one phrase and this will again be matched by his mate.  This is known as countersinging and, in this instance, is used to strengthen the pair bond.  Countersinging is also used to help settle territorial disputes between birds of the same sex.  Cardinal song varies quite a bit from one region of the country to another, and even 200 miles can make a difference in the song’s phrases so as to be almost unrecognizable at times.

Nesting begins in mid-April and lasts until late August.  Cardinals may lay 2 clutches of eggs, and sometimes even a third.  The nest is usually built by the female in 3 to 9 days and is located in shrubby thickets, tangled vines, privet or dense evergreens.  The young birds are tended by both parents and leave the nest in 9 to 11 days, though they can’t fly well until about 19 days.  Within 45 days the young cardinals become independent.  These birds will look like the female, light brown with redish crest, wings and tail, but will have a black, or dark bill, rather than the orange of the adult.  Cardinals are frequently parasitized by the brown-headed cowbird and it is not uncommon to see adults feeding a young brown bird that is so obviously not one of their own.

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