By Casey First
The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is arguably one of the best known and most beloved songbirds in the US. Iconic in appearance, the male’s robust red coat is nothing short of striking, especially when at the forefront of a white winter’s snow or against the foliage of the mountains here in Western North Carolina. The female Cardinal is equally stunning, adorning warm reddish-pink accents atop a sandy-colored body.
Just slightly smaller than a robin, the male and female both have a dampened reddish bill suited to crack open a sunflower husk, a pointy and commanding crest and a tail that juts outward about one-third to one-half the size of their bodies. The male’s face has more black surrounding the bill than the female’s face does.
The Cardinal’s popularity and familiarity to even non-nature enthusiasts is of no surprise as this bird, also known to many non-birders as simply “the redbird,” is abundant in numbers and very well distributed throughout the greater part of the middle and eastern US (and oddly enough common also in the desert Southwest). Because Cardinals do not migrate, we are lucky enough to see this backyard visitor throughout the entire year.
This species of Cardinal is an iconic and rich part of our history, serving as the state bird for seven states, the namesake of many sports teams, a sign of good luck, an ode to love, a sighting often attributed to remembering those that have passed on and a symbol of sacredness to many First Nations people.
Both the male and female Cardinals sing, and if you hear a loud, clear and rich whistled song that mimics a “birdie, birdie, birdie” set of syllables, one may be near. Their song tends to speed up and then slow down at the end to a slower trill. Their calls are varied and diverse, with ornithologists identifying more than a dozen unique ones. But the call that is most often heard is a loud metallic chip, given to scare intruders away from this territorial species.
Cardinal nests are typically made of twigs and vines, and the females will make a cup with her feet and line the inside with softer grasses, pine needles and stems. The male brings nesting materials to the female while she does the majority of the work of building. Nests are often seen wedged into the forks of tree branches and can vary from being very low to the ground to as high as 20 feet.
The female Cardinal will lay about 3-5 eggs and have a couple of broods each season. Once fledglings have vacated the nest, it typically won’t be used again. The Northern Cardinal’s habitat is varied and adaptable: from woodland edges to open parks and forest clearings to denser and brushier areas and even swamps. They are considered ground foragers and can oftentimes be seen hopping on the ground or in low bushes.
Their diet is mainly vegetarian, consisting of seeds, grasses, grain and various berries. However, they do eat insects like ants, caterpillars, flies and grasshoppers. Cardinals will often flock to fallen seeds like sunflower, peanuts and corn from feeders hung high above. This doesn’t mean they won’t fly up to a feeder; just make sure you offer an open-style one like a tray or hopper. And if you fill it with black oil or striped sunflower and safflower seed, they’ll grace you with their presence and beauty over and over again.
Casey First is owner of Wild Birds Unlimited, located at 946 Merrimon Avenue, Suite 120, in Asheville. Monthly bird events are free and open to the public, with no registration required. To learn more, visit NorthAsheville.wbu.com. Stephanie Sipp is a professional nature illustrator and educator who creates joyful images of animals, birds, flowers and places which are celebrated by followers both regionally and online.