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A chapter from the electronic book:  Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds

Northern Cardinal
Cardinalis cardinalis [Eastern Cardinal]  

[Published in 1968: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 237 (Part 1): 1-15]

As we travel southward from New England's ice and snow to meet spring halfway, we are greeted by the loud peto, peto of the tufted titmouse, the lively, striking song of the Carolina wren, and the rich, whistling notes of the cardinal redbird, three birds we rarely see in New England. They seem to be welcoming us to the land of sunshine and flowers, and their music brings a heart-warming change from the bleak and silent woods we have left behind.

We formerly considered the cardinal a southern bird, a member of the Carolinian fauna of the Austral Zone. Our 1886 Check-List gave its range as only casual north of the valley of the Ohio River, which forms the northern boundary of Kentucky; the 1895 edition extended the range to the Great Lakes; and the 1910 edition included southern Ontario and the southern Hudson River valley.

During recent years, it has been gradually extending its range northward. It is steadily increasing in abundance and has established itself as a breeding bird in regions where it was formerly only a casual visitor.

The advance has been most rapid and most extensive in the Mississippi Valley and has occurred mainly during the last decade of the past century and the first three decades of the present century. Much of the advance seems to have come in winter, where winter feeding has encouraged it to remain. In Iowa, where it is a now a permanent resident, Philip A. DuMont (1934) reports that in "1923 eight observers found thirty-six cardinals, and in 1929 seventeen observers reported one hundred and forty-nine," on a Christmas census.

For southern Ontario, where the cardinal is now well established as a breeding bird, Saunders and Dale (1933) report:

The first record for this species was one taken at London, on November 30th, 1896. . . . They remained of very rare or casual occurrence until 1910. . . . Reports were infrequent during the next two or three years, but since about 1914 they have come to be looked upon as permanent residents, a very delightful addition indeed to our fauna. During the winter of 1916-1917, J. C. Middleton had eight Cardinals feeding at his home on The Ridgeway, London, as well as a variety of other birds. Thirty-one were reported in our Christmas Census for 1929. They often nest within the city in lilac bushes, or other shrubbery, several nests having been collected after the birds had finished with them. . . .

O. E. Dovitt (1944b) reports: "A marked incursion of cardinals occurred throughout Southern Ontario during the fall and winter of 1938-1939."

Evidently the species is still extending its range and increasing in abundance everywhere east of the Plains and even as far west as North Dakota.

In South Dakota, Herbert Krause (1956) points out, the species over a 52-year period has followed up the streams east of the Missouri River and become established as a breeding bird, wintering in "appreciable numbers."

Norman A. Wood (1951) comments on the spread and expansion of breeding status throughout Michigan beginning in 1904.

Throughout the southern portion of its range, the cardinal is universally abundant, familiar, and generally distributed in the vines and shrubbery about houses and the dense hedges of Cherokee roses, in the streamside thickets and the more open woodlands intermingled with dense bushes, and in thickets overgrown with climbing vines. It avoids the more open places and the forest treetops, but, in the cities and villages, it is omnipresent, semidomesticated, and generally beloved for its beauty and song. In Mississippi, according to Charles R. Stockard (1905), it also nests in orchards and in "the thickest canebrakes."

Where it has become established farther north, it prefers similar haunts wherever it can find them, even coming into the towns and cities and nesting in lilac bushes near houses and in other shrubbery in parks and gardens.

Courtship.--Evidence of affection between mated pairs and courtship to secure new mates may be observed before the end of winter. The male shows more tolerance toward the female on the feeding shelf, allows her to feed with him, and often puts food into her beak. Singing by both sexes becomes more frequent and seems to play an important part in the courtship performance.

Shaver and Roberts (1933) write: "The singing of the male became more frequent in February and parts of songs could be heard at almost any hour of the day. It was about the middle of February before the female started to sing. From this time on to nesting time, the male and female often appeared to sing against each other, i.e., the female would sing a song and then stop while the male repeated the same song. Then he would wait for her to sing again. At these times male and female usually sang the same songs. When the female changed the song, the male did too. Sometimes they would sing in unison."

They noted other types of behavior, as follows:

Two pairs of cardinals were in one tree, the males chasing the females from branch to branch. When the males alighted for a moment, their necks were stretched out and their crests raised high so that they looked exceedingly long and slender. They sang and swayed their bodies from side to side, frequently bowing also. Soon one pair flew away and the male of the remaining pair flew to the top of a high tree and sang with wings partly spread and drooping. He sang the 'whoo-ett, whoo-ett, whoo-ett, tuer tuer tuer' song. The female came to the shrubbery below. The male sang low and soft. The female flew over the fence and called until he came to her. . . .

Another type of behavior is closely linked with the swaying of the exceedingly slender body with pointed erect crest. The male may fly to the same limb on which the female is perched, alighting usually higher up on the branch. Then with his crest, neck and body extended, and singing very rapidly, he may step sideways down the limb to the female. During this time he appears fairly to slide down. If this process is interrupted by the female flying to another tree, the male may pursue her flying directly towards her with outstretched crest and neck, and singing on the wing. . . .

Quite frequently the behavior just discussed ends with coition at the end of the male's slide down the limb towards the female.

They noted that the female took part in the courtship performance by stretching out her neck as far as possible, and that both sexes swayed their bodies from side to side and both sang, often in unison.

Verna R. Johnston (1944) writes: "On March 1, 1940, two male cardinals chased one female up and down and around trees for twenty minutes, the female always in the lead. The two males flew at each other several times, pecking and ruffling their feathers and uttering an angry buzzing note when in combat. Several times the males dashed headlong from the top branches of a tree toward the ground, only to swoop up again when within six feet of it. When the female stopped and perched in a tree, usually high up, the two males perched close by and took turns singing, flying at each other and diving toward the ground while the female watched them."

Much of the singing and fighting is closely connected with the establishing of the breeding territory. Mrs. Laskey (1944) says: "The groups and loose flocks, formed during fall and winter, disband gradually as males choose territory and obtain mates. . . . Cardinals do not defend territory so pugnaciously as Mockingbirds, for example, do, but there is some mild fighting in spring. A mated male will fly at an intruder of his own sex; a mated female will chase another female, but each is usually tolerant of the opposite sex, never becoming an ally of its mate against the intruder."

Nesting.--Cardinals build their nests in a variety of situations, in bushes, tangles of vines, saplings, and small trees, with no decided preference for any particular species. Very few are placed in trees; most of them are built in tangled thickets or dense shrubbery. A. Dawes DuBois has sent me his notes on 14 Illinois nests; 2 of these were in saplings 6 feet from the ground, 1 in woods, and 1 in a ravine; 1 was in a tangle of old vines on a fallen stump in some river-bottom woods; the others were all in bushes, at heights ranging from 2 1/2 to 6 feet above the ground; the bushes were located along the banks of creeks, at the roadside, and in woods or thickets; 2 were in blackberry bushes or tangles, 1 in a gooseberry bush, and 1 in spirea bushes close to a house; another was "in a large bush in Washington Park in Springfield, where automobiles passed only about 20 feet away."

W. E. Shore writes to me about some Toronto nests: "Five nests which I visited this year were all within the city limits. One was in High Park, within 2 or 3 feet of one of the busiest walks and, no doubt hundreds of people daily walked by within arm's reach of the nest, which was only 3 feet from the ground in a Austrian pine. Another was 12 feet from the ground in an orange-blossom bush in a back yard in the heart of the city. . . . Another nest noted was in a rose arbor 6 feet high in a city garden, and another was in a vine growing on the side wall of a back porch. The door of the porch, through which people passed all day, was only 3 or 4 feet from the nest and the kitchen window was directly over it.

"One other nest that I would like to mention was built in a small bush in a greenhouse connected with a flower shop in the center of the city. Entrance was gained through a broken pane, which the owner kindly refrained from repairing until the young had been led out."

Gertrude Fay Harvey (1903) photographed a nest in a rose vine in a conservatory.

Frederick S. Barkalow, Jr., writes to me of an Alabama nest that was 5 feet from the ground in a small Pinus taeda, 1 foot from the trunk.

Mrs. Amelia R. Laskey (1944), who has found a total of 103 nests near Nashville, Tenn., writes:

As nest sites, Cardinals choose young evergreens of many varieties; privet hedges; many species of vines, including rose and honeysuckle; shrubbery; and saplings of hackberry, elm, hawthorn, and locust. I have found them from 2 1/2 to 12 feet from the ground, but 4 to 5 feet is the usual height . . . . Most nests are concealed in forks of twigs and small branches or in mats of vine stems, but one at my home was built upon a platform of twigs which I had placed in a privet shrub where the pair had tried to anchor material in unsuitable forks. Another was built on the ledge of a lattice fence between poultry wire with nothing for concealment. . . . E. Copeland (1936) describes a Cardinal nest built in a feeding shelf outside a second-story window.

Nests are composed most commonly of weed stems, small pliable twigs, strips of bark, grasses, vines, and rootlets, with leaves and paper interwoven. They are bowl-shaped, some compactly built and well-lined, others very flimsy with scarcely any lining.

She says that the nest is usually built by the female alone. Three nests that she watched from start to finish were completed in 3, 4, and 9 days, respectively; and the first egg was laid within 5 or 6 days after the nest was finished. "Four nestings in a season are not uncommon."

G. M. Sutton specifies a wide variety of nesting habitat. The nesting site may be wholly removed from the feeding grounds in shrubbery in swamplands, in cedars in dry old fields, or in sassafras trees in the shade of tall oaks and hickories. Sutton's study of 21 nests in Oklahoma showed the highest 15 feet up, the lowest 15 inches; average height was 5.9 feet. There were 15 clutches believed complete, with 3.2 eggs per clutch. In two nests containing 4 eggs each, only 3 eggs hatched.

Nests have been recorded as high as 20 feet by Trautman (1940) and 30 feet, very rarely, by Oberholser (1927). Harold M. Holland (1930 and 1934) reports cardinals nesting for two different seasons in a woven-wire sparrow trap on a beam in an outbuilding.

William Youngworth (1955a) comments that a pair with a nest 6 feet up disregarded his Siamese cat throughout the entire nesting period. Much of the time the female was away from the nest and the male nowhere in sight. Something drove the female from the nest just before 10:00 p.m. one night; the bird returned almost an hour later. He comments on the ability of the bird to see in the dark. The female stopped night-brooding the lone nestling when it was 5 days old. On the 10th morning after hatching, the young bird, after 2 hours of calling by both parents, scrambled from the nest and flew 6 feet to a tree. Upon this, the mother bird flew away and Youngworth did not again see her near the offspring or in the neighborhood. She left the bird in the care of the male.

Oscar Hawksley and Alvah P. McCormack (1951) describe a doubly occupied nest. At one time both females were actually on the nest, facing in opposite directions.

Andrew J. Berger writes Taber that the breeding season of this species in Michigan, formerly almost unknown there, is from mid-April to mid-September. He found a female incubating four eggs on April 19, 1954. A nest held three eggs on August 26, 1955, and on September 7 the three young were still in the nest. On September 17 he collected a young bird (tail 1.5 inches long) still being fed by adults, and he saw another family group with young of about the same age in another area.

Eggs.--The cardinal lays from two to five eggs, with three or four most often forming the set. They are ovate, occasionally tending to elongated-ovate or short-ovate, and are somewhat glossy. The ground color is grayish white, buffy white, or greenish white, and is generally well speckled and spotted with such shades of brown as "pecan brown," "cinnamon brown," "mummy brown," and "Brussels brown," with underlying spots of "pale Quaker drab," "light mouse gray," or "pale violet gray." In most cases the markings are fairly evenly distributed over the entire egg, with tendency to become more concentrated toward the large end, but some eggs are so thickly speckled that the ground is almost obscured, while others may be very sparsely spotted or boldly marked with irregular spots or blotches.

The measurements of 50 eggs average 25.3 by 18.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 27.9 by 18.3, 24.9 by 19.8, 21.8 by 17.6, and 26.9 by 16.8 millimeters.

Young.--Incubation is performed normally by the female, but the male has been seen occasionally to sit on the nest for short periods.

Hervey Brackbill says in his notes: "Observations on two nests in Baltimore indicate that, although some sitting is done earlier, incubation at full intensity is not begun until the final egg has been laid. At an early May nest there was some incubation on the day the first egg was laid, but the bird did not roost on the nest until the second had been laid, and apparently did not begin steady sitting until the third was laid."

According to Mrs. Laskey, the period of incubation is 12 to 13 days. Three eggs, marked by Brackbill, hatched in 11 days 13 hours, 12 days 1 hour, and 12 days 1 1/4 hours.

Mrs. Laskey says that the young remain in the nest normally for 9 or 10 days, but may leave at 7 days of age when disturbed, or may stay in the nest until 11 days old. Young cardinals are fed by both parents while they are in the nest, and for some time thereafter. Brackbill (1944) made some observations on a brood of color-banded young cardinals that "showed weak but effectual flight on the day of nest-leaving, at about 10 days of age, the birds being able to keep to cover well above the ground; strong flight by the age of about 19 days, partial independence at about 38 days, complete independence at 45 days, and severance of family ties at 56 to 59 days. . . .

"In the presence of a parent both the juveniles that I kept under observation begged for food to the very end of their association, although during the final 12 or 14 days the begging was always futile."

Gertrude Fay Harvey (1903) watched both parents feed the young that were raised in her conservatory. "The food was grubs and insects, which the old birds swallowed and gave to the young by regurgitation during the first week. Afterwards it was given directly and it was interesting to see what large mouthfuls the little fellows could accommodate. When nine days old, one of them swallowed, without choking, a grub two inches long and as large as a lead pencil."

At a nest McAtee (1908) watched for 6 1/2 hours, the young were fed 178 times, an average of 89 times each. The longest interval between visits was 35 minutes and the shortest was 2 minutes. G. M. Sutton says the adults turn their heads sideways to feed the young, as the food is far back in the gullet.

Mrs. T. E. Winford writes of watching the female lead two full-grown young into a garage to feed them grubs taken out of a dislodged wasp's nest.

Apparently, three or four broods of young are often raised in a season; probably three broods are raised normally, as nesting begins early and ends late in the season. W. E. Shore writes to me that one pair, in Toronto, built five nests in one season, and another pair raised four broods successfully.

J. Van Tyne (1951) observed a male which, with its beak filled with the type of green worms it had been seen feeding the young, stopped at a feeding tray, disgorged the worms onto the shelf, cracked, ate some sunflower seeds, picked up the worms again, laid them down again, ate more seeds, then picked them up again and flew off, presumably to feed the young. He repeated the procedure a second time later in the day.

Plumages.--Dwight (1900) describes the natal down of the cardinal as "mouse-gray." Of the juvenal plumage, in which the sexes are alike, he says: "Above, sepia-brown, wings darker and suffused with dull dragon's-blood and brick-red, the tail, crest and forehead largely brick-red, traces of black on lores and chin. Below wood-brown, cinnamon tinged on throat, sides and flanks."

A complete molt occurs in August, or earlier in early broods, producing in the male a scarlet plumage practically indistinguishable from that of the adult and much veiled with olive-gray edgings. The first nuptial plumage is acquired by wear, the loss of the gray edgings intensifying the bright red of the spring plumage. There is no molt. Adults have a complete postnuptial molt in late summer and the brighter male spring plumage is acquired by wear. The sequence of molts is the same in the female, but she never assumes the full red plumage, although her crest, wings, and tail are tinged with dull red.

Food.--In his excellent paper on the food of grosbeaks, W. L. McAtee (1908) gives the results attained from the examination of nearly 500 stomachs of this species. The examination showed that "the bird's diet is about three-tenths animal and seven-tenths vegetable."

The animal food consists almost entirely of insects. He lists 51 species of beetles, including ground beetles, click beetles, wood borers, fireflies, lamellicorn beetles, long-horned beetles, snout beetles, leaf beetles, billbugs, and bark beetles. Twelve species of Hemiptera are listed, including cicadas, treehoppers, leafhoppers, plant lice, and scale insects. Four species of grasshoppers and crickets are included, as well as the larvae of eight species of Lepidoptera, ants, sawflies, dragonflies, and other flies. Other invertebrates include spiders, centipedes, snails, slugs, and small bivalves. He mentions that a male cardinal was seen eating a field mouse.

He says that the nestlings of the cardinal are highly insectivorous: "During the preparation of this report 4 have been examined, with the result that 94.75 percent of their food was found to be animal matter and 5.25 vegetable. . . . The proportions of the principal food items of the four nestlings are as follows: Cicadas, 17.25 percent; grasshoppers, 20; caterpillars, 21.25; and beetles, 23.25."

Among the vegetable food, he includes corn, rice, Kafir corn, oats, and wheat, making up only 8.73 percent of the total food, but much of this is waste grain.

He lists 33 species of wild fruits, including nearly every kind of tree, shrub, or vine that is available, and 39 species of weed seeds, as found in the stomachs of this grosbeak. But he does not mention any damage to cultivated fruits.

In his summary, he writes:

The cardinal has been accused of pilfering certain grains, notably corn, to an injurious extent, which charge the evidence from stomach examination neither proves nor disproves. But in view of the fact that only 8.73 percent of the total food is grain, and that more than half of that amount is waste, the loss is greatly overbalanced by the destruction of weed seeds alone, which compose more than half of the vegetable food. Moreover, some of the weeds consumed are especially destructive to grain crops.

In securing its insect food the cardinal injures us in 1 case and benefits us in 15. In other words, considering animal food alone, only one cardinal does harm to 15 which do good. . . .

The following list of important pests the bird has been shown to prey upon is in itself sufficient proof of the cardinal's value. The list includes the Rocky Mountain locust, 17-year cicada, potato beetle, cotton worm, bollworm, cotton cutworm, cotton-boll weevil, codling moth, rose-beetle, cucumber-beetle, figeater, zebra caterpillar, plum scale, and other scale insects.

Rev. J. J. Murray writes to me: "I once noted a pair of cardinals visiting the holes made in a maple tree by sapsuckers. It was early in March, when the sap was running freely. They were drinking greedily."

Mrs. Laskey says in her notes: "March 12, 1939, I saw cardinals eating elm buds, blossoms, or seeds in the treetops.

"May 1, 1947, as winged termites emerged from the base of a large silver maple, a male cardinal ate avidly and fed a few to his mate."

At feeding stations, cardinals seem to prefer sunflower seeds, but they also eat raisins, pieces of apples, corn bread, wheat bread, scratch feed, and millet.

Behavior.--In the cardinal we have a rare combination of good qualities, brilliant plumage, a rich and pleasing voice, beneficial food habits, and devotion to its mate and family. Many of our best singers are not clothed in brilliant plumage, and many of our handsomest birds are not gifted musicians.

Dispositions vary among individuals. Mrs. Nice (1931) writes, regarding birds that visited her feeding station: "Three were amiable birds, but the other two were quite the opposite, tyrannizing over the smaller birds, especially Harris Sparrows, and driving away their future mates; both were afraid of Mockingbirds. But from late March to September the male is a model husband and father, bestowing sunflower seeds upon his mate and feeding the young of the first brood almost up to the day the second brood hatches, in one case even two days afterwards! Two different years young males have been fed by their fathers for 17 days after they were fully grown, till July 10 and Sept. 30, respectively!"

Although amiable at times, the cardinal is generally mildly dominant at feeding stations and sometimes decidedly belligerent, as indicated in some of the following notes from Mrs. Laskey: "There have been occasional instances of dominance; usually one male runs at another male, one female at another female. One moves out of the way but does not leave.

"At a ground feeding spot, where sunflower seed had been placed, two male cardinals rose at least 5 feet into the air as they struck at each other.

"Some groups are made up of cardinals that are mild mannered or only mildly domineering. Again, there may be one or more individuals that are pugnacious and continually driving their companions away, either by running at them or actually fighting."

Bayard H. Christy (1942) quotes Maurice Brooks of West Virginia University:

Cardinals are decidedly social, particularly in the winter. Aggregations that gather about a favorite feeding place are almost always fairly evenly divided in the matter of sex, since most of the birds seem to remain mated, at least throughout a year's time. During the early winter months a male cardinal would not tolerate the presence of a female, even his mate, on a small feeding shelf. An intruding cardinal was either driven off, or it in turn drove off the first. Other and smaller song-birds were, however, tolerated without any threatening movements. In late winter and early spring male birds became much more tolerant of females, and both sexes often fed together. During the nesting season the female, on her brief visits to the feeding shelf, was often intolerant of the presence of a male.

As further evidence of its pugnacity, the cardinal occasionally indulges in "shadow boxing," fighting its own image in a window pane or mirror, as if it were a rival. Both sexes do this.

Chapman (1912) refers to the cardinal as "rather a clumsy fellow. His body appears to be stiff, as if it were made of wood, different in every way from the pliant, lithe body of the Catbird, for example. He hops about on the ground with tail held well up out of harm's way, and comes heavily down upon his feet, as if his body were really very solid. In fact, he is not at all a graceful bird."

Thomas S. Roberts (1932) says: "It is a rather restless, uneasy bird, moving constantly about, and when disturbed, registers its annoyance by elevating the crest to the fullest extent and accompanying its rather feeble chip by quick jerks of the long tail."

Some observers have stated that cardinals seldom bathe, or that the male rarely does so. But there is considerable evidence that both sexes bathe, and in all sorts of weather. Mrs. W. W. Dickinson, of Bluefield, W. Va., writes to Mrs. Laskey that she has many records of both male and female cardinals bathing. She has several records for December, January, and February. On Dec. 23, 1945, with a foot of snow on the ground, she observed five males and two females bathing that day, all separately, as she has never seen more than one cardinal bathing at a time. On March 5, 1947, a male bathed with two house sparrows about noon when there was 5 feet of snow, and there was ice in the water.

Mrs. Laskey says in her notes: "January 5, 1946, about noon, with a steady rain falling, a male cardinal stood on our driveway, shaking wings and tail, going through the motions of bathing as the driving rain came from the southwest. Once he flew to a tree, but returned to the driveway to resume bathing in the rain."

Cardinals, like some other birds, are sometimes addicted to the curious habit of "anting"; this consists of picking up ants, crushing them and rubbing them through the plumage, under the wings, about the thighs, and at the base of the tail; the object of it may not be fully understood, but it is supposed to be for the purpose of anointing the plumage with formic acid to discourage vermin; after thorough "anting," the plumage appears wet, as though the juice had been squeezed out of the ants.

Referring to the gregarious character of the cardinal, Nuttall (1832) says:

But though they usually live only in families or pairs, and at all times disperse into these selective groups, yet in severe weather, at sunset, in South Carolina, I observed a flock passing to a roost in a neighboring swamp and bushy lagoon, which continued, in lengthened file, to fly over my head at a considerable height for more than 20 minutes together. The beautiful procession, illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun, was incomparably splendid as the shifting shadowy light at quick intervals flashed upon their brilliant livery. They had been observed to pass in this manner to their roost for a considerable time, and, at daybreak, they were seen again to proceed and disperse for subsistence.

Harvey B. Lonell (1948) comments on the frequency with which the cardinal removes aluminum bands from its tarsus.

Stanley Logan (1951) mentions a pair of cardinals that lost nest and young in a windstorm. The adults built a new nest. The male, before the second brood hatched, undertook to feed four young robins and was almost as active in that respect as the parent robins. Ultimately the cardinal's second nesting proved successful, and the male cardinal fed both its own young and the robins'.

Voice.--Although the cardinal could hardly be rated as one of our finest singers, it has a great variety of rich, flutelike notes, which are very pleasing and are sure to command the attention of even the casual observer. It is a very persistent singer throughout most of the year, and it has been heard singing occasionally during every month in the year, but in the northern states, the main song period is from March to August, and according to J. Rowland Nowell (1899), in the vicinity of Anderson, N.C., the cardinal sings in February. Both sexes sing, and the song of the female is but little inferior to that of the male, though usually softer.

Mrs. Laskey (1944) says that cardinals "have at least 28 different songs, but the male and female song are indistinguishable. Cardinal song may sometimes be heard the year round, but full song for the male usually extends from February to September, and for the female, from March until July to August. Whisper singing, antiphonal singing, and night singing are all common with cardinals."

Rev. J. J. Murray writes to me: "Once, on the last day of March, I watched a female that was moving through a thicket, followed by a male. Occasionally she stopped to whistle a low, sweet song, peer, peer, peer, peer, the male silent all the while. Sometimes a cardinal, disturbed at its roosting place, will react by singing, even in the middle of the night."

G. M. Sutton points out that prior to nesting the first song for any given day may be uttered by either sex. Singing by the female subsides with nesting. During that period the male greets the day with "trial" songs, which may be three whistled chuck-er whee phrases, usually preceded by a few chirps similar to the alarm notes. Similar call notes are uttered in the evening for several minutes before the male flies to its perch for the night. In midsummer ebullient singing, by both sexes, may be followed by nesting, during which singing becomes practically nonexistent.

Hervey Brackbill says in his notes: "I have once seen a cardinal sing on the wing. During a flight of about 70 yards, early one March morning, the bird gave a steady succession of the chyou notes that have the quality of a taut wire sharply struck. It was still singing when it alighted in a tree, and continued singing there for some seconds."

Witmer Stone (1937) gives us the following account of the voice of the cardinal: "The Cardinal has quite a repertoire but all of his vocal efforts come under the head of whistles rather than songs. There is the loud emphatic call--which I have recorded as whoit, whoit, whoit, often followed directly by the longer drawn out cheer, cheer, cheer, and sometimes a bird utters quite a different call cheedle, cheedle, cheedle, cheedle. On one occasion a bird called rapidly and continuously whit, whit, whit, whit, whit, etc., like the Flicker's rapid call, while another had a very low modification of the cheer call--pheu, pheu, pheu."

Aretas A. Saunders writes me that "The song of the cardinal is one of the most distinctive and pleasing of American bird songs. The notes are delivered in a loud, somewhat reedy whistle. Certain notes, slurs, or phrases are usually repeated rhythmically, and rather rapidly. In many songs a particular slur or phrase is repeated throughout the song. In other songs there are two distinct parts, the bird changing abruptly, somewhere in the middle of the song, from one kind of slur or phrase to another.

"The pitch of the songs varies from G'' to C'''', three and a half tones more than an octave. The pitch of the repeated phrase may not change or may become lower near the end of the song, very rarely higher. This repeated phrase may be a slur, teeyo or toowee, or a single note and slur, as wheeteeyo or whitowee. The slur may be up or down, or both, or absent. Songs vary in length from 1.8 seconds to 4.2 seconds, usually even in time, occasionally with marked acceleration toward the end, but never slower. The song is loud, with great carrying power. There may be a marked increase in loudness toward the end, but never a decrease.

"Consant sounds, both explosive and liquid, are prominent, and include phrases such as whitcheeah or toolit or tayo, or to to to to to. The individual bird has many songs, all the way up to seven."

In his unpublished manuscript Saunders emphasizes the variable length and number of notes. In his 98 records the number of notes varies from 4 to 43, with the average about 16. Songs vary in length from 1 to 5 4/5 seconds, averaging about 2 3/4 seconds. In this manuscript he states that the pitch varies from D5 to C7.

Albert R. Brand (1938), in his studies of the vibration frequencies of passerine bird song, found that the pitch of the cardinal's whistled notes "averages lower than one would presume." Its average is 2800 vibrations per second, "a shade above the highest F of the keyboard"; the highest note recorded on his film was 4375, and the lowest 2200 vibrations per second.

Young cardinals begin to sing at an early age. Mrs. Laskey (1944) writes: "The first songs of immature Cardinals are very soft warblings, totally unlike adult song; these 'indefinite' warblings are called 'ancestral,' 'primitive,' or 'tribal' by various authorities (Nice, 1943). I have records of four young cardinals singing in August, two wild birds and two hand-raised, free-flying females. One of the latter began warbling at three weeks of age, the other at four weeks. One of the wild birds (probably a female) appeared to be about a month old; the other, a male, nearly two months old, used some adult phrases in his lengthy warbling performance."

Enemies.--In addition to well-known predators, furred and feathered, that prey on small birds, the cardinal seems to have a number of troublesome enemies among other birds. Perhaps the worst of these is the cowbird, of which Friedmann (1929) says that the cardinal is a "fairly common victim. . . . In some places this bird seems to be one of the commonest hosts, while in other localities its status is quite different. . . . The Cardinal is parasitized chiefly in the central parts of its range, as the Cowbird is a rare breeder along the Atlantic seaboard south of Virginia. . . . There is a case on record of a Cardinal building a two-storied nest, the lower floor containing two eggs of the Cowbird (M. ater obscurus)."

Mrs. Horace P. Cook (1934) says of a pair of cardinals that nested for several years near her home: "In the summer of 1932 they first nested in the yard of a neighbor to the east of us, in a dense shrub, but cats or Blue Jays destroyed the nest and the eggs were thrown out on the ground. They then built in the yard west of ours, about eight feet up in a mulberry tree, where sprouts grew upright, making a perfect nesting site. But when the young were beginning to feather, a pair of Blue Jays tried to do away with them. The brave parents fought them off in a terrific battle, to come out victors, although the birds were barely saved."

House wrens sometimes puncture the eggs of the cardinal, and catbirds and English sparrows occasionally compete with them for nesting sites.

Harold S. Peters (1936) lists two species of lice, one fly, one mite, and three species of ticks, as external parasites of the eastern cardinal.

Dr. Rudolph Donath, of the Communicable Disease Center, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Atlanta, Ga., writes Oscar M. Root that the cardinal has been found to carry antibodies of the eastern equine, western equine, and St. Louis encephalitis.

D. A. Zimmerman (1954) mentions four birds found dead on highways, and Andrew J. Berger writes Taber of seeing a fox squirrel destroy the eggs in a cardinal's nest beside his house in Michigan. The adult birds flew about in neighboring bushes, giving alarm notes. Alexander W. Blain (1948) incudes this species in a list of birds injured or killed by hitting "picture windows."

Mrs. Laskey mentions a cardinal that fell to the ground with one wing bound to its body by spider webs.

As to the longevity of cardinals she (1944) says: "Of 1,135 Cardinals whose life span could have been three or more years, 30 (2.6 percent) have reached the ages of three to six years, the oldest female being 4 1/2 years old; two males reached the ages of six years. A male and a female 10 years of age and a male 13 1/2 years are cited from the literature."

This very old bird was banded by A. F. Ganier (1937) in February 1924 and was last seen in November 1936; he seemed very feeble when last seen, though he had mated and reared a brood that year.

Fall.--The cardinal can hardly be classed as a regularly migratory species. Many individuals are decidedly sedentary, remaining in the same locality for breeding and wintering, and seldom wandering more than a few miles from where they were hatched. On the other hand, banding records have shown that many others have wandered considerable distances from where they were banded and in various directions. A bird banded at Elberton, Ga., Apr. 4, 1944, was recovered in Dickinson County, Va., Jan. 18, 1945, 105 miles to the northeast. Another banded at Takoma Park, Md., May 10, 1939, was taken at New Kensington, Pa., July 20, 1940, nearly 200 miles to the northwest.

The records show a decided trend of movement northeastward and northward in the fall and late summer, which may account for the many northern winter records and for the eventual northward spread of the species. Where encouraged by feeding stations, some of these birds have remained and bred.

Winter.--In their winter haunts, cardinals often gather into large flocks of sometimes more than 60 or 70 birds and resort to the more sheltered localities. Milton B. Trautman (1940) says of such resorts in the vicinity of Buckeye Lake, Ohio: "In the coldest portion of the year, especially when there was much snow, the bird was largely confined to the dense cover of the larger of the brushy thickets, fallow fields in which giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida) and other weeds had grown rank and tall, weedy fields of uncut corn, and the dense shrub layers and grapevine tangles of woodlands. . . . A few remained throughout winter in the dense shrubbery about farmhouses, cottages, and in villages, especially where they were fed."

There is no more pleasing, soul-warming sight than one of these bright red birds enlivening with color the somber woods or leafless shrubbery when the ground is covered with snow and the world seems lifeless. And, perhaps on a sunny winter morning, he may cheer us with a few notes of his flutelike song.

 


Northern Cardinal*
Cardinalis cardinalis [Eastern Cardinal]

*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland and collaborators (compiled and edited by Oliver L. Austin, Jr.). 1968. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 237 (Part 1): 1-15. United States Government Printing Office

 


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