If there is a Pennsylvania critter that represents Christmas, it must surely be the cardinal. Photographs or paintings of this colorful bird, often proudly perched on a snow-covered evergreen bough, grace many holiday greeting cards. The bright red plumage of the male against a white and green background presents a striking image.
The cardinal is a favorite at other times of the year, too. Seven states have selected the cardinal as their official state bird, including our neighbors in Ohio and West Virginia.
Cardinals are about eight inches long, measuring from the tip of their beaks to the ends of their tails. Males are bright red with black faces, and females are a subdued tan color with just hints of red. The heads of both sexes are distinguished by their stocky red bills and crests of longer feathers.
The cardinal (officially named the northern cardinal since 1983) currently belongs to a family of birds called Cardinalidae. Taxonomically, this group is also known as the cardinal-grosbeaks or cardinal-buntings. Relatives found in Pennsylvania include the rose-breasted grosbeak and the indigo bunting. The northern cardinal is the only Pennsylvania member that sports a crest of feathers in the group.
Rose-breasted grosbeaks, who spend just the summer months in Pennsylvania, used to be rare and infrequent visitors to our feeders. This bird is now a regular feeder bird each spring and early summer. We are sometimes treated to as many as four pairs of grosbeaks. Indigo buntings are also only warm-weather visitors, and although mainly insect-eaters, they occasionally snack at our feeders.
Because of their similarly shaped beaks, it was once believed that the flashy yellow, black and white-colored evening grosbeaks were another relative, but this bird is now listed in a separate family.
The cardinal is a year-round Keystone State resident, but it was not always that way. One hundred and fifty years ago, the cardinal was considered a southern bird. Thomas Nuttall, then director of Harvard University’s Botanical Gardens, described the cardinal as an inhabitant of magnolia gardens and cypress swamps. He referred to it as the “Kentucky cardinal” in his writings.
In his 1963 book, “Biology of Birds,” Wesley Lanyon wrote, “A recent warming trend in the climate of the northern hemisphere has promoted remarkable northward range extensions of birds.” This included the cardinal and the tufted titmouse.
It is believed that backyard bird feeders have contributed to the northward spread of cardinals, as well, for they now nest in Maine and southern Canada — an amazing feat for a “southern bird.”
An Audubon Society poster about grosbeaks credits the widespread planting of trees such as box elder, which produce winter seeds for cardinals, as an important role in their range expansion.
Little did Lanyon know that the “warming trend” continues to this day, as measured by later first frosts, milder winters and a growing season that seems to begin earlier each year. With this in mind, one might predict a continued northern expansion of the cardinal’s range.
According to the “Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania,” cardinals were first recorded in this area of the state shortly after 1900. They now breed in all 67 Pennsylvania counties, and they continue to increase in numbers across the commonwealth.
Cardinals live in brushy fields, thick forests, farms and in suburbia. They love edge habitat and are frequent visitors to bird feeders. Their natural food consists of hard seeds, fruit and insects during the summer. At the bird feeder, sunflowers seeds are a favorite. The cardinal’s tough beak allows them to crack the seeds and extract the tasty heart with ease.
Males begin to defend territories as early as February. Their song is described as sounding like “pretty, pretty, pretty,” or “what-cheer, what-cheer, what-cheer.” Female cardinals also sing, which is unusual in a bird world where males usually do the singing. Sometimes the female will repeat the same notes just sung by its mate. According to Chuck Fergus in “Wildlife of Pennsylvania,” this could serve to strengthen the pair bond. Males also court females by breaking open seeds and offering the inside to the female.
Cardinals are early nesters, probably because of their southern lineage. I once observed young in a nest in early April. The cardinal nests that I’ve seen were loosely made from small twigs, vines and roots and lined with grass.
The female is the nest builder and usually builds in thick vegetation three to six feet from the ground. I observed one nest in a white cedar about five feet from the ground, while another nest was three feet from the ground in a rhododendron bush at the edge of a forest. During the past several years, cardinal pairs have unsuccessfully nested in a forsythia bush and a shrubby red maple near our house. However, this past summer, their nesting efforts were very successful.
Females usually lay three or four eggs that hatch in about 12 days. The male tends the female while she nests and also helps in feeding of the young. According to the Atlas, cardinals might nest up to four times a year.
Although a cardinal’s song sounds pretty to us, males are strongly territorial and very aggressive toward members of their own species. They frequently attack their reflection in windows or hubcaps. One winter, a cardinal would visit one of our basement windows, pecking at its reflection time and time again. Robert Merritt, a college instructor of mine, told of a male cardinal in one of his studies. The bird responded to a mounted decoy and tape-recorded song by flying in and ripping the fake bird’s head off. “Pretty, pretty, pretty” — yeah, right.
My observations of cardinals follow the literature for the most part, but we only infrequently witness the winter flocking behavior often described. This year, I believe that eight is the most cardinals we have seen together. The other discrepancy I’ve noted has to do with their tameness. At my feeders, if a cardinal detects a slight human movement from either inside or outside of the house, it’s gone. I would rank the cardinal as one of our most skittish visitors.
Hopefully, a fresh snow will soon provide conditions for a bright red cardinal to land on a frosted branch and provide that perfect holiday-card view.