Cold weather brings out the cardinals

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cardinal on snowy branch
(Farm and Dairy file photo).

By the time you read this, there’s a good chance the ground will be covered by a blanket of fresh snow. At least that’s what the meteorologists are predicting. When snow flies, activity at bird feeders peaks. Cardinals become especially conspicuous. These spectacularly beautiful bright red birds are hard to ignore against a snowy background.

A few days ago an initial wave of snow flurries arrived in advance of the big storm. I counted two male and two female cardinals at my feeders. The males glowed like red hot coals in the snow. The females blended into the gray/brown background of the drab winter woods. Three consecutive days of single digit low temperatures seemed to presage the storm’s impending wrath.

But the cardinals’ very presence brightened the day and lifted my spirit. It’s no wonder informal surveys rank cardinals as one of America’s favorite birds. In fact, seven states (Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Indiana and Illinois) honor the cardinal as their state bird.

Warmer days

In the spring, the male’s song tells us warmer days lie just ahead. Their slurred whistles say, “What cheer! What cheer!” or “Purdy, Purdy!”

In the summer, after raising a brood or three, parent cardinals escort their broods to backyard feeding stations. The elders introduce the young to their favorite feeder food — sunflower seeds.

In the fall, family groups form flocks that later in the year will visit feeding stations. The colder and snowier the weather, the larger the flocks of cardinals seem to be.

And in the darkest hours of winter, there’s nothing more uplifting than a tree full of cardinals against a white snowy background. It’s a scene that makes a heavy snowfall almost worth the inconvenience it brings.

Attracting attention

The male’s brilliant red plumage and loud slurred whistles attract both attention and admiration from birdwatchers. But don’t assume every singing cardinal is a male. Unlike many songbirds, female cardinals sing, too. Our only crested red bird, cardinals are easy to recognize. The reddish brown female pales in comparison to the brilliant scarlet male. Adults of both sexes have bright pink or red bills and black faces. Cardinal bills are massive and powerful — perfect for cracking seeds.

Bird banders handle cardinals with care because they like to bite the tender flesh between the thumb and index finger. As a rule, cardinals are well adapted to habitat disturbances. Look for them along forest edges, old fields, parks, cemeteries and backyards. A better understanding of cardinal behavior comes from carefully observing what occurs at backyard feeders.

Remain together

Though the pair bond relaxes during the nonbreeding season, mated cardinals remain together during the winter months. Throughout the winter, males often eat their fill before allowing females access to feeders. This behavior changes abruptly when spring courtship begins. Then males not only permit females access to feeders, they even husk seeds and pass them, bill to bill, to the female.

These “kisses” continue throughout the breeding season, serving to strengthen and maintain the bond. Sometimes pair bonding and territorial behavior get extreme, and this is when some cardinals demand to be noticed. They attack windows, car mirrors, hubcaps, and even shiny door kick plates. In so doing, they often leave behind a mess of feathers and blood. Though this usually occurs in the spring, I get reports of this behavior throughout the year.

Defending the territory

Male cardinals are strongly territorial, and although their aggressive tendencies subside during fall and winter, territorial outbursts can occur at any time. When a male cardinal sees his reflection on any shiny object, he sometimes responds as if the “rival” is real.

And yes, sometimes females do it, too. These attacks can last for an hour or more until more powerful urges — fatigue or hunger — prevail. The solution is to eliminate the reflective surfaces.

Put screens on windows, cover car mirrors with paper bags or wash shiny surfaces with soapy water and let them dry to a dull film.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

1 COMMENT

  1. Good read, Scott! I can almost set my clock by the male Cardinals coming in to “fuel up” at my black sunflower seed feeder each morning (just before daybreak.) The female Cardinals follow in shortly after the “guys” chow down.

    Last Fall I thought we’d have a severe winter, so I bought 3 huge 40 pound bags of sunnies for the Cardinals. Been feeding them since Halloween, and haven’t gotten thru the first bag yet! P.S. Following the Cardinals to my feeder are a large group of (ta-dah!) Purple Finches! They’re back!

    Just love that brilliant red Cardinal color here in the Akron area each winter!

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