Article By: Evan Glynn Photo By: Ginny Lea Photography
The Northern cardinal is an extremely popular bird in backyards all across the eastern U.S. The male Northern cardinal’s flashy red plumage and crest are recognizable by both birding enthusiasts and the casual observer who may only know a few species. The Northern cardinal is the state bird of seven states, and mascot for several sports teams across all levels of athletics. This is one of the first species that many people learn. Its year-round presence at feeders, and recognizable whistled song make it a great species to highlight for the individual who may just be getting into birds.
Male Northern cardinals are unmistakably bright red with black masks and throats. These birds have long tails, and prominent crests. Females are paler brown overall with reddish tinges in their wings, crest, and tail. Both sexes have bright red thick bills. Some of the most iconic images of North American birds are those of Northern cardinals in winter with their bright red plumage composed against freshly fallen snow.
Many Northern cardinal pairs maintain the same territory year round. To continually reinforce their pair bond and establish/maintain their territory, both male and female Northern cardinals sing. Singing of both sexes is fairly common in the tropics, but is less common in our area. Northern cardinal songs have loud, slurring, whistled phrases, and often come from tree tops of a pairs’ territory. Northern cardinals also have loud, metallic, diagnostic chip notes that are often heard from low dense scrubby habitat. While learning ‘chip notes’ may seem like a daunting task to a new birder, Northern cardinal vocalizations are a great place to start. These year-round residents will provide good practice for the individual learning to ‘bird by ear’ in their own neighborhood or backyard.
Northern cardinals are common in backyards and forest edges. They prefer to nest in thick shrubby areas. They should be present at any backyard feeder offering meaties.