One common backyard bird that may be taken for granted also has romantic attributes worthy of Valentine’s Day.
In the brown bleakness of mid-winter, the male Northern cardinal brings a flash of bright red to yards of homes in the eastern halves of the United States and Mexico, as well as the desert Southwest.
While the female is mostly brown, she still sports a spunky crest and warm red accents along her wings and tail feathers.
Unlike many birds, both the male and female sing with “a loud string of clear down-slurred or two-parted whistles, often speeding up and ending in a slow trill” in songs of two to three seconds, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website.
Outside of nesting, fairly distinct pairs of cardinals, which “mate for life,” are usually seen together or not far apart. During courtship, males will feed the females, which appears to some as kissing.
While nesting, males will bring materials to the females, who meticulously build the nest. The female sits on the eggs, while the males search for food and protect the nest.
In fact, the males are so defensive during nesting season that they have been known to attack their own reflection in windows — thinking that the reflection is a competing male — sometimes to the point of self-injury.
Yet just like humans, the cardinal’s monogamy doesn’t always mean they don’t occasionally stray from their mates.
A study at Cornell University found that while cardinals are “socially monogamous” with mates, genetic studies found that up the a third of nestlings have a biological parent different from the original mated pair that raises them.
Sharon Richardson, executive director of Audubon South Carolina, called the cardinal the “gateway drug” for many birding addicts.
“The Northern cardinal is such an iconic bird,” says Richardson, adding that for many people who live in its range, the cardinal marks their first experience or memory of birds.
Backyard bird count
Next weekend, more than 200,000 people across the globe are expected to participate in the 21st annual Great Backyard Bird Count and Northern cardinals will likely top the list, which is likely a testament to the dedication and love of people who regularly provide food at bird feeders.
In 2017, Northern cardinals topped the number of species showing up on checklists. The “red birds” showed up as a species on 52,422 checklists. The next closest was the American crow at 47,275 and the mourning dove at 47,076.
The Great Backyard Bird Count starts Friday and ends Feb. 19. The “citizen’s science” initiative was started by the Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 1999 and enjoys the corporate sponsorship and promotion by Wild Birds Unlimited and more than 300 franchise stores across the nation.
Just like the Eagles
While the bald eagle is the national emblem and the team name of the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, the Northern cardinal is broadly represented by government and sports, as well.
The cardinal is the state bird for the most U.S. states: North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. After South Carolina ditched the Northern mockingbird for the Carolina wren, that species represents five states as their official state bird.
The Northern cardinal, while not considered powerful or intimidating, also is the team mascot for three major American sports programs: the Arizona Cardinals professional football team, the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team and the University of Louisville Cardinals collegiate sports teams. (While Stanford University’s nickname is cardinals, it refers to the color red and not the bird.)
Wedding cakes & tattoos
Cardinals also are well represented in Christmas cards, home décor and more.
Virginia Flatau Sanchez, a member of the Charleston Natural History Society (the local Audubon chapter), is an avid birder, having seen hundreds of species including a local rarity, the snowy owl. But Northern cardinals remain her favorite species, especially for their “romantic courting behavior.”
“When the male is courting a female, he will gently pass a seed to her as a gift. It looks like they are kissing when their beaks touch. It warms my heart whenever I see this on my feeder,” says Sanchez.
As a result, cardinals had a special place at her wedding in 2015 in Georgia.
“Since I love cardinals so much, a bridesmaid helped me make bride and groom cardinals for a wedding cake topper when I got married. The female cardinal has a garland of flowers and a veil, the male has a bow tie, and they are in a little nest together. It is now one of my favorite keepsakes,” says Sanchez.
Cardinals have such meaning in Misty Lister’s life that last summer, as a tribute to her great grandmother who raised her, she got a tattoo of a cardinal on her left forearm.
“I love, love, love cardinals,” says Lister. “My great grandmother used to watch for cardinals all day long. She said they represented your angel and that seeing them meant someone is watching over you.”
Lister has yet to have the outline of the cardinal filled in with red, but she plans to do so, largely because “someone recently told me it looked like a bird from Pokémon, and I ain’t having that.”
Another anecdotal testament to the popularity of cardinals is made by the numbers of people who talk about them when they go local bird seed and supply stores, such as Wild Birds Unlimited.
Danielle Motley, co-owner of the Mount Pleasant store, says she not only loves cardinals but hears people talk about them “almost every day.”
“They are so beautiful and vibrant, and they frequent the bird feeders, so it's easy to enjoy learning their habits,” says Motley, noting the behaviors during courting and nesting.
Like Lister, Motley has a family story about cardinals.
After her 4-year-old son fell and hit his head on the table, a cardinal came to the window.
“I told him to look up, that the momma cardinal came to check on him and see if he was OK. He immediately stopped crying and watched the cardinal feed at the feeders for a while. The male came down shortly after and now he thinks they both are flying down to check on him whenever he sees them at the feeder,” says Motley.
“We've also seen them bring their babies to the feeder, which we obviously know they're doing to show us their growing family, so they're watching our family grow and we're watching theirs (grow),” says Motley.
As for her expert advice on feeding cardinals, Motley says they love an open feeder such as a tray and that cardinals love sunflower seeds and safflower seeds but are also insect and fruit eaters.
Motley says studies have shown that during molting season, in the fall, more than 75 percent of their diet are insects and fruit and that’s why people with feeders will see a drop in cardinal activity then.