Animal House: The Cardinal

The cardinal, known for its distinctive red color, peaked head, and beautiful voice, has long been a symbol of the Christmas season.

The cardinal has long been a symbol of Christmas cheer, and when one sees the brilliant red plumage against a snow-white background it is no wonder. 

The cardinal is a year-round resident here in the Northeast. It doesn’t migrate and it doesn’t shed its feathers. 

The cardinal’s distinctive red coloration and peaked head makes it a well-recognized bird.

They were actually more commonly known as “redbirds,” but they derived their current name from the red robes worn by the Catholic Cardinals.

The cardinal will generally nest low in dense shrubbery and is a frequent visitor to any bird feeder. The winter months are actually a great time to see the cardinal as it will use the bird feeders as a supplemental meal and the red plumage will stand out easily against the snowy background and lack of foliage (once we get some snow, that is!). 

Only the males have the bright red plumage, and this is used to attract a mate. These birds are members of the finch family and will fiercely defend their territory against predators and other male cardinals.

Interestingly, because of this ferocity in defending its territory, it is common to see this bird fly into windows as it believes it is charging a male intruder, when in fact, it is seeing its own reflection. 

They generally eat fruits, berries, grains, snails, etc. 

Considered a song bird, the Cardinal is generally the first bird one will hear on a warm summer morning.  Unlike most song birds both the male and female cardinals will sing a variety of melodies.

Because of this, the cardinal was once a very popular pet.  But, the migratory bird act of the early 1900’s banned this practice. 

The cardinal is prey to hawks and foxes. The cardinal has a low-lying cup shaped nest, and the eggs it lays are light green.  Given the proximity to the ground and the color of the eggs, the eggs are often a good and easy meal for squirrel, blue jays, possum, and raccoons.

The Cardinal has long been a symbol of the Christmas season as early Christians saw the bright red plumage as a symbol of the blood of Christ.  The cardinal was then used as a natural reminder for Christians to focus on their faith. 

The North American Cardinal is such a well-liked bird, that seven different states have named the Cardinal its state bird. 

A protected species in the United States, the territory of the cardinal has expanded greatly to include southern Canada. 

The Cardinal’s ability to adapt to a given environment and the increase in backyard bird feeders has helped increase the population and territory. 

Keep an eye and an ear out for this year-round resident as it is pleasing to both the eye and the ear during the cold, grey months ahead.


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