The Cardinal

The bright red bird we think of as a cardinal (the bird in our Cardinal Earrings and Cardinal Post Earrings) is properly known as a Northern Cardinal. While the several species of cardinals are all native to the Americas, the Northern Cardinal lives from Southern Canada through the United States and into Central America. However, this delightful songbird did not always have such a wide range, and, in fact, originally lived only in the Southeastern United States. The cardinal does not migrate, so must stay where it can find food year round. So why is it now in Southern Canada and throughout the United States? Because people love the bird and feed it. The cardinal probably owes its current wide range to backyard feeders more than to any other cause. Although cardinals generally prefer woodlands, gardens, swamps and shrubs, the bird is so easy to spot that almost everyone has seen one. And they remain so popular that they are the state bird of seven states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. The cardinal is also the mascot of baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals, the National Football League’s Arizona Cardinals, and more than a dozen college teams.

Europeans had never seen this bird before they first arrived in the Americas, and the brilliant crimson red of the male reminded them of the color of a Roman Catholic cardinal’s vestments. So this redbird wound up with the name Cardinal. And were they ever popular with the new settlers. The Cornell Ornithology Lab says these songbirds became so popular that thousands were caged and sent to Europe in the 1800s. Happily this trade ceased with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

A brightly colored bird (the male, anyway) that almost everyone has seen, the cardinal is also one of America’s best songbirds. Unlike many songbirds, both male and female cardinals sing, and the female often vocalizes with song from her nest, basically singing a duet with her mate (they mate for life), sometimes telling him that she needs food (when she is incubating eggs). Actually, cardinals sing only during breeding season (but they breed up to four times a year, so they have plenty of time to sing). The Cornell Lab of Ornithology points out that cardinals are noted for their loud, clear songs, and these songs show local variations and accents.

In fact, cardinals are unlike almost all other animals in the way they sing. Dr. Ayako Yamaguchi of Columbia University studied these songbirds and found that they learn their songs. She notes that, besides cardinals and humans, the learning of songs is only found in parrots, other mimic-type birds, dolphins and whales. The Columbia study reports that “… she hid speakers in the brush at a field site in Arizona, and when she played back male songs, male cardinals attacked the location of the speaker; when she played back female songs, females responded with a song. Since there were only breeding pairs at the site, none attempted to pair with the speaker.” She had discovered that cardinals can tell whether the singing bird is male or female just by the song! Since the human ear cannot distinguish the male and female cardinal songs, Dr. Yamaguchi used detailed acoustic analysis to look for differences in these songs, and she found that the male’s song has a purer tone, while the female’s has louder harmonics (think Karen Carpenter). She also found that young cardinals have a “babbling” phase, much like human babies, and learn their songs from older birds as they grow. She also noticed that the male’s song changed at about the same time as his testosterone level increased, again much as in humans. She thinks it likely that the male’s testosterone level affects his vocal chord.

So cardinals mate for life and use their songs to communicate with each other. But they also have a fairly well structured lifestyle. According to Wikipedia, during courtship the male will bring food to the female and feed her beak-to-beak, sometimes continuing this feeding during incubation. And he often brings her the materials for building the nest, although the actual building is mostly her job. Occasionally the male will incubate the eggs for brief periods, but incubation is primarily the job of the female. The male, on the other hand, has the task of defending the territory, which he does aggressively. So aggressively in fact that if he mistakes his reflection for an invading male he may fly into a window. And if you find yourself near a cardinal, don’t hold up a mirror – they will fight their mirror reflection for hours at a time.

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