Wild Profile: Meet the Northern cardinal

A male Northern cardinal perched on a snow-covered branch By Danita Delimont/Shutterstock

The Northern cardinal is a cheery pop of colour against the winter landscape. Unlike so many other bird species, cardinals don’t moult their bright red plumage, so they stand out at bird feeders year-round. They’re one of North America’s most recognizable species—who can’t ID a cardinal? Even the females have a sharp, spikey crest and a cherry-coloured beak. Pretty, pretty bird!

The Northern cardinal is unusual for another reason: it’s one of the few female songbirds that actually sings (usually in spring and summer, on the nest). Ornithologists believe this may tell their male partners when to bring them food. (“I want pickles and ice cream! Right now!”) A female Northern cardinal also typically sings longer and more complex tunes than the male—again, unusual in the bird world.

In winter, cardinals are largely quiet. But they do form large flocks, for foraging—sometimes they’ll gather with other species such as dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows. They’re pretty easy to attract to winter bird feeders; with no insects to hunt for, they’ll eat almost any seed you put out. (That said, they’re big fans of black-oil sunflower seeds.)

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Although mated pairs that hooked up the previous spring will often stay together for the winter, about one fifth of couplings break up by the time the next breeding season rolls around. Aww, divorce sucks. Newly split, both males and females are ready to find a new mate.

Have you ever seen a cardinal attacking its own reflection—in mirrors or car windows, for example? That’s because in spring and early summer, both males and females obsessively and fiercely defend their territories. Including from themselves. A cardinal isn’t smart enough to realize that it’s fighting its own reflection, and will attack a shiny surface for hours.


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