Friday, February 13, 2009

Are you a fan of the Cardinals?

By Lorraine McFarland
Past President
Ozarks Rivers Audubon

When people ask if I’m a Cardinal fan, I say yes, but baseball I can take or leave! Northern Cardinals, Cardinalis cardinalis, are yearlong residents in Missouri. If you are reading this I’m guessing you probably know what a cardinal looks like (especially if you are a baseball fan) so I won’t dwell on identifying marks. Just remember that the female is duller than the male, showing red only on the crest, wings and tail.
In the Ozarks bird world nothing can compare to the beauty of a brilliant red cardinal, perched on an icy branch covered with a dusting of snow. After our epic January ice storm and two days without power or water, boredom compelled me to don my bulky snowsuit, grab the camera and venture out into a 4-degree morning. I was rewarded by a very cooperative male cardinal who graciously sat on an ice-covered pine bough while I shot multiple photos of him. This shot is the best of the bunch.
These birds are accomplished songsters. Early in our relationship, my husband asked me “What’s that bird that sounds like a spaceship?” I knew he was referring to the song of the cardinal, parts of which I agreed do actually sound extraterrestrial. Listen for yourself at, and see if you agree.
A cardinal’s diet consists of insects, seeds and fruit and their preferred habitat consists of thickets, forest edges, suburban gardens and parks. In early spring you might be lucky enough to observe the courting display; with crests fully fluffed and necks stretched out, the male and female will softly sing to each other as they sway back and forth. It takes 6-9 days to build a nest of twigs, vines, leaves, strips of bark, and weed stalks lined with hair and fine grass. A clutch consists of two to five eggs and the parents share incubation duties for 12-13 days. Hatchlings leave the nest in about 10 days and both parents continue to care for the young until the female lays more eggs, then the male takes over. One of the most interesting things about cardinals and the most fun to watch at your feeder throughout the breeding season is the older siblings helping with the care of the newly fledged young. The babies will sit on a branch near the feeder and be generally obnoxious, quivering their wings and screaming until a brother, sister or parent brings them a seed.
So, next time the Cardinals’ game gets rained out grab your binoculars and enjoy one of America’s other favorite pastimes – bird watching!

Lorraine McFarland is past president of Ozark Rivers Chapter of the National Audubon Society.

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