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Splash of red.

So wrote wildlife artist John James Audubon in a lengthy description of and tribute to the cardinal, a songbird whose popularity has spanned centuries.

The male northern cardinal is a medium-sized songbird, approximately eight inches long, with short, rounded wings, a long tail, a heavy conical bill, and a crest. Cardinals are said to be named after Roman Catholic cardinals, who wear distinctive bright red robes. The bird is predominantly brilliant red, with a duller shade on its back and wing feathers. A black mask surrounding the cardinal's reddish bill extends from the throat to the eyes, and its legs and feet are dark red.

The female cardinal--slightly smaller than the male--has greenish brown feathers on her back, with variable areas of red on her tail, crest, and wings. Pinkish brown feathers cover the female's underside. Like the male, she has a reddish bill, surrounded by a dark mask. Juvenile cardinals have more brown coloring, a shorter crest, and a blackish bill.

In the 1800s, cardinals were so prized for their vibrant color and song that thousands were trapped for sale as pets until the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Originally found almost exclusively in the southeast, cardinals eventually ranged into the northeast by the 1940s, and now can be found as far north as Canada and as far a field as Hawaii.

Cardinals eat seeds, leaf buds, flowers, berries, and fruit. In warm weather, they also eat insects. When food is abundant in winter, a cardinal flock can consist of as many as 70 birds.

Cardinals are noted for their loud, clear whistling, which they do throughout most of the year, but their singing varies with circumstances. After the male has established a territory and before nesting begins, the female sings "duets" with him. With crests erect, they stretch their necks and rock from side to side while singing together quietly. This behavior may promote bonding between the two and help to synchronize reproduction.

During the breeding season, the monogamous cardinal can produce multiple broods of three to four chicks each. With help from the male, the female incubates the eggs for nearly two weeks, and both sexes care for their offspring until they leave the nest about ten days after hatching. Newborn cardinal chicks are completely dependent on their parents; they are virtually immobile, have no down on their bodies, and their eyes are closed. Considering how they begin life, it's remarkable that they mature as quickly as they do. If the female lays another clutch while a brood is still in the nest, the male tends the brood while the female incubates the eggs.

If a cowbird (a "parasitic" member of the blackbird family) deposits its eggs in a cardinal's nest, the cardinal unwittingly incubates them because, though larger, the cowbird's mottled eggs are similar to the cardinal's own eggs. Unfortunately, cowbird chicks hatch earlier and are bigger than cardinal chicks, and they can inadvertently knock the cardinal eggs or chicks out of the nest, smother the chicks, or contend for food with cardinal chicks.

Based on data taken from banding studies, cardinals can live for up to 15 years in the wild. Although they don't migrate in the traditional sense of the word, cardinals are nomadic. The birds observed at a feeder one week may not be the same birds who visit the feeder during subsequent weeks.

The much-loved cardinal is the state bird of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. The male's image in particular frequently adorns Christmas decorations, in part because red is a traditional Christmas color. Cardinals often are depicted against a snowy white background, resulting in a riveting and attractive contrast. Because cardinals don't migrate south during winter, some people have the good fortune to view such a scene firsthand rather than just on a greeting card.

No matter what the season, the sight of a cardinal is always a treat, especially compared to some other common birds' drab plumage. The color red can be uplifting and energizing, and in Oriental cultures, it represents happiness. What other creature could symbolize these attributes more completely than the dazzling cardinal with its strident song?

Bernadette LaManna is an editor in DEC's Bureau of Publications and Internet.
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Title Annotation:cardinal
Author:LaManna, Bernadette
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Geographic Code:1U200
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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