Manzer: The popular cardinal is a hardy, flashy bird in the winter

By Ted Manzer

The Daily Advance

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Cardinals have a rich reputation as a state bird.

Nobody can misidentify a cardinal, especially a male one. Their bright red color makes them one of the most photogenic birds around. During mating season males are especially bright red.

Cardinals also are comfortable around people. If anything, urban sprawl has served to increase their numbers. Put up a bird feeder and you’ll probably attract them. It’s likely for these reasons that they are the State Bird of seven states including ours.

For those who might not be bird enthusiasts, cardinals are medium-sized birds. They are about eight or nine inches long from head to tail and they have a tuft of red feathers on their heads. Females are mostly gray with tinges of red. Both sexes have prominent pointed red beaks that are very strong for their size. If you pick up an injured cardinal that has flown into something, beware. They bite hard.

Cardinals are hardy birds. Cold weather doesn’t seem to affect their activity so they stick around all year. They don’t migrate and reside in every eastern state westward to Colorado and Arizona. They even live in much of Mexico. In the last hundred years their range has increased significantly. That could be another reason so many states recognize them.

Cardinals are prolific seed eaters. Those who keep well stocked bird feeders know that. They’re not stupid. During winter it’s much easier for them to hit the feeders than forage for seeds, so you can observe them in large numbers. Cardinals also will eat small fruits and insects and in warmer weather they often do.

They’re also very territorial. Several years ago one male sat on a branch outside one of my windows and beat at that glass until the entire glazing was gone. He saw his reflection and hammered at it so hard I thought he’d kill himself. I finally had to climb a ladder and prune the branch.

Cardinals like to nest in hedges or brushy thickets. Once they mate, the female normally lays three or four speckled eggs. In northern parts of their range females usually lay only one or two eggs per clutch. Incubation is 12 to 13 days and hatchlings leave the nest in less than two weeks.

Cardinals are good parents and have a high success ratio at hatching and raising chicks. They usually raise two or three broods per year. Males care for the females during incubation and help feed and raise chicks once they are hatched. Males will staunchly defend the nest, often driving off predators much larger than themselves.

One thing that sets cardinals apart from most songbirds is that both sexes sing. Typically only male birds do that. Cardinals are vocal birds and their call is loud and becomes easy to recognize.

Years ago before the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, cardinals were caged and kept as pets. Now it is illegal to own a cardinal as a pet without a special permit. It’s also against the law to kill one. Some states even prohibit possessing feathers.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture

at Northeastern High School.



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