Ask ten people to name their favorite bird, and at least five will say "cardinal." It's beautiful, it's vocal, and perhaps most important, it's a year-round backyard resident. Familiarity breeds affection.
In the spring the male's song tells us warmer days lie just ahead. "What cheer! What cheer! What cheer!" or "Purdy, purdy, purdy," are just two of the familiar songs that identify cardinals by sound.
In the summer, after raising a brood or two, parent cardinals escort their broods to backyard feeding stations. The elders introduce the young to their favorite fast food -- sunflower seeds.
In the fall, family groups come together to 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 is nothing more uplifting than a tree full of cardinals against a snow white background.
Of all the birds that visit backyard feeders, none is more familiar or more welcome than the cardinal. The crested crimson male is certainly one of the most widely recognized and admired birds in America. In fact, seven states (Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, and Illinois) honor the cardinal as their official "state bird."
Attention and admiration
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 most song birds, female cardinals sing, too.
Cardinals are easy to recognize because they are our only red-crested bird. 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. Juveniles resemble adults, but have dark bills.
Cardinal bills are massive and powerful. If ever a bird was meant to crack open and eat seeds, it's the cardinal. No wonder it is such a connoisseur of sunflower seeds.
Cardinals avoid deep forests and seem well adapted to disturbed habitats. Forest edges, old fields, parks, cemeteries, and fence rows attract them throughout the year.
A better understanding of cardinal behavior comes from carefully observing what occurs at backyard bird feeders. Though the pair bond relaxes, mated cardinals remain together in small loose flocks during the winter. During intense cold snaps flocks of 10 to 20 birds sometimes gather. I've counted more than 50 in my backyard at one time during severe weather.
Throughout the winter, males often eat their fill before allowing females access to the feeder. This behavior changes abruptly during spring courtship, however. Then males not only permit females access to the feeder, they even husk the seeds and pass them, bill to bill, to the female. These "kisses" continue throughout the breeding season, serving to strengthen and maintain the pair bond.
What really prompts this column on cardinals, however, are the letters I get every year as summer winds down. Sometimes the tone is panic stricken. Sometimes it's merely concern. But the basic question is the same: "Why am I seeing bald cardinals?"
It's true that toward the end of summer some cardinals lose the feathers that form the distinctive crest. Some lose all their head feathers. The result is a sorry looking, bald bird. It almost suggests a miniature vulture. It happens to other birds such as blue jays too, but, it seems most noticeable in cardinals.
The good news is that the effect is usually temporary and harmless. But the cause of this odd appearance remains unclear. One explanation is that sometimes birds become so infested with feather-eating mites and/or lice, they lose the battle to external parasites. If the birds can't groom themselves properly, the result is a bald head. Others argue that late summer baldness is the result of an unusual molt pattern. Whatever the cause, though, cardinals win the war -- the feathers grow back. Most birds are fully feathered by the time cold weather sets in.
So, if you see an occasional bald cardinal, don't fret. It will recover. Just be sure to keep their favorite feeders filled with sunflower seeds.