Cardinals brighten the day, lift spirits

Finally, winter seems to have arrived. Last week one morning the thermometer read 19 degrees, and an inch of snow covered the ground. The falling snow limited visibility, but drops of brilliant crimson decorated the tree that held the nearest feeder. After weeks of counting just handfuls of birds at the feeders, flocks had returned. And as usual, the most brilliant birds were the cardinals.
I counted 15, eight males and seven females. Against the snowy background, the males were so bright, they seemed to glow. The females blended into the gray/brown background. All morning they gathered at that feeder, taking turns at the sunflower seeds. Their very presence brightened the day and lifted my spirit.
It's no wonder that informal surveys invariably rank cardinals as America's favorite bird. I understand why western birders travel east just to see cardinals. And I understand why seven states honor the northern cardinal as their state bird.
In the spring, the male's song tells us warmer days lie just ahead. Slurred whistles saying, "What cheer! What cheer! What cheer!" or "Purdy, purdy, purdy," are just two of many familiar songs that let us 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 feeder food -- sunflower seeds.
In the fall, family groups come together to form the 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 snowy white background. It's a scene that makes even a heavy snowfall worth the inconvenience it brings.
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 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 with 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. I'm sure every bird bander has a story about a feisty cardinal that, while being handled, took a bite of flesh and just refused to let go.
Cardinals avoid deep forests and seem well-adapted to habitat disturbances. Forest edges, old fields, parks, cemeteries and backyards attract them throughout the year.
Observe their behavior
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 loose flocks during the winter.
Throughout the winter, males often eat their fill before allowing females access to the feeder. This behavior changes abruptly when spring courtship begins. Then males not only permit females access to feeders, 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 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. And 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. 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 responds as if the "rival" is real. Sometimes he actually bloodies himself. 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 all windows, cover car mirrors with paper bags, or wash shiny surfaces with soapy water and let them dry to a dull film.
Send questions and comments to Scott Shalaway, R.D. 5, Box 76, Cameron, WV 26033 or via e-mail to sshalaway@aol.

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