Throughout the months of February and March, with temperatures hovering in the single digits, our backyard cardinal has been singing. Every morning when I go outside to fetch wood for the stove, I am greeted with the cardinal's cheerful calling. To me, it is the promise of spring coming soon.
The pair of cardinals along with many blue jays visiting our backyard feeder have added a splash of color to the overcast days of winter.
The northern cardinal was one of the many species originally described by Linnaeus in his 18th century work. It initially was included in the genus Loxia, which now contains only crossbills.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BILL BOWER
The cardinal and blue jays that visited our backyard feeder have added a splash of color to the overcast winter days.
In 1838, the bird was placed in the genus Cardinalis and given the scientific name Cardinalis virginianus, which means "Virginia cardinal."
In 1918, the scientific name was changed to Richmondena cardinalis to honor Charles Wallace Richmond, an American ornithologist. In 1983, the scientific name was changed again to Cardinalis cardinalis, with the common name changed to Northern Cardinal to avoid confusion with the seven other species also termed cardinals.
The cardinal now belongs to the finch family, and the scientific name Cardinalis caddinalis is Latin, pertaining to a door hinge, that upon which something turns or depends. The common name of cardinal comes from the cardinals - important dignitaries of the Roman Catholic Church - who wear scarlet robes; hence, the red color of the bird is known as cardinal red.
The cardinal is one of the most admired of all North American birds, not only for its brilliant coloring but also its songs. They sing frequently, especially in late winter into the breeding season. Both sexes sing, with the female being the only bird that can sing the male's songs.
The male will sing and his mate will repeat whatever song he sang. They have a repertoire of 28 songs. During the summer months, their sweet whistles are one of the first sounds heard in the morning.
The male that I have heard calling every morning is beginning to set up his territory. Earlier in the winter, he appeared, at times, to be driving the female away; however, this behavior has changed. I recently watched as the male fed the female a sunflower seed, a sure sign of spring.
The cardinal's originally are bird's of the south; however, in recent decades, they have expanded their common range north through the United States and even into Canada. The population growth can be due to an increase in winter bird feeding and the bird's ability to adapt to parks and suburban human habitats.
Although cardinals don't migrate, the young birds, after leaving the nest, will wander in all directions for each to set up its own territory. The northern cardinal is so well loved that it has been named the official bird of no fewer than seven states.
The male northern cardinal perhaps is responsible for getting more people to open up a field guide than any other bird. They're a perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, style and a shade of red that is hard to resist watching. Even the lightly brown colored females sport a sharp crest and warm red accents.
Pairs mate for life and remain together year-round. Mated pairs sometimes sing together before nesting.
During courtship, cardinals could participate in a bonding behavior in which the male collects food and brings it to the female, feeding her beak-to-beak. If the mating is successful, this mate-feeding could continue throughout the period of incubation.
Males sometimes bring nesting materials to the females, who do most of the nest building. The female uses her beak to crush the twigs until they are pliable, then turns in the nest to bend the twigs around her body. Then with her feet, she pushes the twigs into a cup shape.
The cup will have four layers: coarse twigs (bits of trash) covered with a leafy mat; lined with grapevine bark and, finally, grasses, stems, rootlets and pine needles. A nest typically takes three to nine days to build.
Three or four eggs are laid, with incubation taking 12 to 13 days. The female generally incubates the eggs. On rare occasions the male will incubate for brief periods of time.
The young fledge 10 to 11 days after hatching.
Both the male and female indulge in "anting," meaning they pick up and crush ants to rub on their plumage. After anting, the cardinal's plumage appears to be wet. The reason for anting is not totally understood.
Although at this writing, snow still is covering the ground and the temperatures are below freezing, nature already is gearing up for spring's arrival.
Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.