Follow by Email

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Here's more about Cardinals than you probably care to know

Northern Cardinal
The name “cardinalis” (the bird’s scientific name) was chosen by Swedish botanist Linnaeus because it reminded him of the red robes of the Cardinals of the Catholic Church.  Few people care, but technically it’s a “Northern Cardinal”. 

In the 1800s, the Northern Cardinal occurred naturally in North America only as far north as southern New York and west only to wooded portions of the Great Plains.  Back then, it could be seen only rarely in north Texas.

In the 21st century, the Cardinal is almost everywhere in this country (except large chunks of the West) and is one of the birdwatchers’ favorites. Its popularity is probably due to its bright color. Cardinals aren’t native to the Western states but were introduced on several occasions, beginning in 1880. It didn’t take well, but by the 1920s there was finally a self-sustaining population in Los Angeles County. There were several introductions on the Hawaiian Islands, between 1929 and 1931.  Today the Cardinal is a common backyard bird on many of the larger islands. Cardinals were also introduced, successfully, to Bermuda “a long time ago” (nobody kept records).  The Cardinal (or “redbird”) has been introduced into several other places, with varying degrees of success.

The original population has expanded too. Thanks largely to the birds’ adaptability, and the increasing number of people who feed birds and provide habitat. Backyard bird-feeding became popular at the start of the 20th century, enabling the birds to survive cold, harsh winters and hot, dry summers.  Today, their range extends north into southern Canada, and their numbers are growing from the Rocky Mountains, east to the Atlantic seaboard. By the way, the Arizona Cardinals of professional sports is
actually a similar-looking Pyrrhuloxia, native to the southwest (when the team was in St. Louis, the name made sense); the Cardinal isn’t native to Arizona

Centuries ago, Cardinals only lived naturally along rivers and steams, and at the forest edges occurring naturally (such as were created by fires or floods). However, as man cleared small spaces for homesites, more and more “forest edge” was created. Humans even grew and stored lots of Cardinal-food such as wheat and corn.  If humans had set out to create habitat for Cardinals, we couldn’t have done much better.

Due to Cardinals’ casual proximity to humans, we have plenty of opportunity to observe their behavior. For instance, the female Cardinal seems to do all the nest construction.  She also sits on the eggs, while the male makes trip after trip - bringing food to the female and (when the eggs hatch) to the 2 to 5 fledglings. The nest is usually less than 10 feet from the ground (often lower). They’re concealed within dense vegetation however.

Male and females escort fledglings (just-out-of-the-nest youngsters) to the vicinity of birdfeeders. The parents will bring seeds to the fledglings, with the adult male doing most of the work. The adults soon tire of this, and the clumsy fledglings (now knowing where the feeder is) come by themselves. You’ll recognize them by their black bills, gaping mouths, short tails, and wing-quivering. This “teaching by example” happens often at backyard birdbaths too.  Watching them try to take a bath is amusing (any birdbath deeper than 2 or 3 inches, by the way, is too threatening to almost all birds). 

By late summer, the fledglings will have matured. Then all Cardinals, start to get ready for the winter ahead, and molt their feathers, often looking unkempt in the process. Sometimes, most of the head feathers will be gone at the same time leaving a bare-headed bird (looking sort of like a vulture).  Don’t worry, it’s not diseased - and winter feathers will soon grow in.

During the winter, Cardinals often join informal flocks and visit
feeders (and the ground below them) in large numbers. This is when you can see them almost every day - especially just after dawn and near dusk They appreciate feeders with “cardinal rings” or other perches that don’t require them to bend their necks (not easy for a Cardinal, anatomically). They eat a large variety of seed and, sometimes, even suet; preferring a seed blend that’s heavy on fresh sunflower seeds. If their finely-tuned senses tell them a seed is stale or dried out, they’ll just drop it and go to another yard.
OWEN YOST, in addition to being a blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has lived and worked in north Texas for over 30 years. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. His office is at in Denton.

No comments:

Post a Comment