Our most beloved bird

It is impossible to mistake a cardinal for any other bird in North America. Sometimes called the redbird, this flaming red avian has a crest and a heavy red bill, around the base of which is a dark patch that extends back through the eye, giving the impression that it is wearing a mask.

The female and the young are less flamboyant in coloration than the male, having a hint of red in their cinnamon-yellow plumage, but they have the crest and red bill.

The cardinal is a member of the finch family that is characterized by massive beaks used effectively in crushing seeds.

During the past few months, I have been delighted each afternoon to receive a pair of cardinals at my backyard feeder. The male and female always arrive together, so I presume they are a bonded pair.

The brilliant male, “gentlebird” that he is, always defers to his mate and allows her first access to the feeding platform while he waits patiently perched on a nearby branch. After about five minutes, however, he ruffles his feathers in a state of agitation. I presume this is a signal to his mate that it is his time to get at the tasty smorgasbord of seeds. If the female does not respond to the signal, the male will fly to the platform and unceremoniously nudge her away. He will allow her to return after a bit, and they will feed together to repletion.

There is no doubt about it, the cardinal is one of the most popular (if not the most popular) birds we have. It is so highly regarded that seven states, including Illinois, have adopted it as their official bird.

It is abundant in the Southeast and Midwest and has been extending its range to the Northeast for several decades. It is considered rare west of the Rockies.

The pyrrhuloxia resembles the female cardinal, but it is confined to the mesquite and cactus areas of the Southwest and has a yellow bill.

The male cardinal is more of an extrovert than the female. Often, he will be observed perched on a wire, pole, or branch serenading us with his distinctive call or whistle, which sounds to some like “cheer up, cheer up!”

The female will likely be found obscured in a nearby bush or thicket. I have always likened the call of the cardinal to a man whistling for his dog. The female, from her more secluded spot, will often reply to her mate’s whistle with one of her own, an unusual act for most female birds.

The cardinals’ nest is made of twigs, leaves, and grass and is located in shrubs, vines, and trees, rarely high above the ground. The female broods the three to four eggs that hatch in about 12 days. The male is an attentive father-to-be as he provides food for his mate while she incubates the eggs. He watches over his family with solicitude, taking charge of the young when they have left the nest while the female prepares to lay another batch of eggs. Three to four broods may be reared during a single breeding season.

Though seeds (especially sunflower seeds) make up a large portion of the cardinal’s diet, many types of insects and spiders may also be consumed. For some reason, cardinals have acquired a definite taste for the cicadas that emerge in great numbers at various times, and the nuisance these pestiferous insects cause is somewhat abated by the affinity cardinals have for them. Of course, cardinals are perhaps more beneficial to man by offering their aesthetic beauty and friendliness. What is more beautiful than a fiery male cardinal in a snow-covered setting with the blazing red presenting such a vivid contrast to the soft white background?

As cardinals are year-round residents in the areas they inhabit, they have to endure the harshness of the winters in the north. Undoubtedly they are helped in their struggle to survive in harsh climates by the seeds provided by man in the feeders that can be found in many yards.

Years ago, cardinals were trapped in great number to be sold as cage birds, but that practice has all but ceased. They were also formerly shot in large numbers for their beautiful feathers to adorn lady’s chapeaux.

Many came to know the cardinal through its affinity with certain athletic teams, namely the St. Louis Cardinals baseball and the Arizona Cardinals (formerly the Chicago and St Louis Cardinals) football teams.

Illinois made a wise decision in naming the cardinal its official bird. I can think of none better, even if six other states had the same idea.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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