Northern Cardinal, a beautiful bird, but one so often found in our backyard that we rarely grab our binoculars to study them.  While I’ve taken these industrious neighbors for granted, researchers have observed some interesting behaviors.

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Northern Cardinals have more than two dozen songs. The melodic, pretty bird, pretty bird, such a pretty bird is my favorite.  Unlike most birds, the female cardinal sings as well as the male.  Pairs counter sing, which is when one sings a phrase and the other matches it.

The leader then chooses a new phrase and the other follows.  If the singers are two males, they may be working out a property dispute. For a male and female, counter singing is part of courtship.   When a nesting female sings from the nest her mate knows she’s hungry or needs a break.

It’s probably the exception, but banded Northern Cardinals have been known to live as long as 15 years.  We have a single male who returns to our fourth floor feeder each breeding season.   Although Northern Cardinals aren’t generally known as migratory, he and his family disappear in the winter when small flocks are formed.  Perhaps they grace your feeder.

Like flamingos, the color of Northern Cardinals is affected by their diet. Males are a more vibrant red if they eat plants, or animals that eat plants, rich in carotenoids.  Among the fruits and flowers they enjoy are dogwood, grape, mulberry, blueberry, hackberry, pokeweed, and poison ivy.

In addition to the seeds from feeders, they dine on the seeds of many weeds, grasses and sedges. A meal of snails and slugs also supplies carotenoids.  Insects are the main food for the young and 30% of the adult diet is insects.  Researchers theorize that the Northern Cardinal’s overall health, including eyesight, is affected by their intake of carotenoids.

It’s always charming to see a Northern Cardinal feeding his mate, but this is actually a test.  The female needs a good provider.  She and her young will depend on the male, his attentiveness, and the quality of the food in his territory to support the family.  A territory may be between two to ten acres.

While the female is incubating the eggs and until she can leave the young, the male is totally responsible for suppling insects.  The young fledge at 7-13 days. Then Father is responsible for the fledglings’ care for the next three weeks while Mother builds a second nest.  Each baby needs to be fed up to ten times an hour.  The couple may raise three broods a season.   Whoa!

The female builds the nest while the male usually assists by collecting materials.  The female crushes twigs with her beak until they are flexible then bends them around her body and pushes them into a nest shape.  The twigs are covered with a mat of leaves and then lined with bark strips and twigs.  Finally, a layer of grasses, stems, and pine needles are added.  It’s not unusual to find bits of trash woven into the nest.  Building a nest takes three to nine days.

So, now that I’ve learned a little more about cardinals, I’m enjoying their counter singing and considering what I can add to the yard to make finding insects and berries a little easier.  Hope you will, too.

Here’s a good article on how Northern Cardinals produce their song.

By Carole Tebay