Cardinal a fitting symbol for the Christmas season

9:15 am | December 27, 2011

Merry Christmas.

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/David Brezinski - A female Northern Cardinal perches on a frozen branch. Although her mate is more colorful, she has her own understated beauty during the winter season.

It’s been several years since I have been able to wish readers a happy holiday on Christmas Day. I hope everyone is enjoying a great Christmas that, just might, also include watching some birds.

Photo by Ken Thomas - A pair of Northern Cardinals visits a feeder together.

Often, when we think of the birds of the winter season, our thoughts focus on some of the less-than-colorful feeder visitors — the brown sparrows and wrens, the black and white chickadees, the drab American Goldfinches so unlike their summer appearance.

There’s one bird, however, that stands out in any season. The Northern Cardinal, especially the brilliant red male, stands out against a winter backdrop of snow white, deep green or drab gray.

The Northern Cardinal belongs to a genus of birds known as Cardinalis in the family Cardinalidae. There are only two other species in this genus, and they range across North America and into northern South America.

The two relatives are the Pyrrhuloxia, or Cardinalis sinuatus, of the southwestern United States, and the Vermilion Cardinal, or phoeniceus, a bird found in Colombia and Venezuela.

Two other South American birds — Red-crested Cardinal and Yellow-billed Cardinal — are more closely related to tanagers than to our familiar Northern Cardinal.

However, both the Northern Cardinal and Red-crested Cardinal have been introduced into the state of Hawaii, so two non-native birds from different parts of the globe are now resident in the Aloha State.

Over the years, the Northern Cardinal has also become associated with the Christmas season. How many Christmas cards have you received this holiday season with a cardinal featured in the artwork? I’d wager that at least a few cards in any assortment of holiday greetings will feature the likeness of a Northern Cardinal.

Cardinals, also known by such common names as redbird and Virginia nightingale, are easily recognized backyard birds. I never tire of observing these colorful birds. Cardinals are easily lured to any backyard with some accommodating cover and a supply of sunflower seed.

Cardinals are easily identified. The male boasts crimson plumage, a crest, a black face and orange bill. The female, although less colorful, is also crested. Female cardinals are soft brown in color, with varying degrees of a reddish tinge in their feathers, particularly in their wings. Immature cardinals resemble females except young cardinals boast dark bills.

Cardinals are a widespread species, ranging westward to the Dakotas and south to the Gulf Coast and Texas. The southeastern United States was once the stronghold of the cardinal population. In the past century, however, cardinals have expanded their range into New England and Canada.

The cardinal accepts a wide variety of food at feeders. Sunflower is probably their favorite, but they will also sample cracked corn, peanuts, millet, bakery scraps and even suet. The cardinal is also one of the few birds that I have noticed will consistently feed on safflower seed.

While we may get the idea that cardinals feed largely on seed, that it is a misconception based on our observation of the birds at our feeders. Cardinals away from our feeders eat insects and fruit, including the berries of mulberry, holly, pokeberry, elderberry, Russian olive, dogwood and sumac.

At feeders, cardinals mingle with a variety of other birds. Their preference for dense, tangled habitat is one they share with such birds as Brown Thrashers, Eastern Towhees, Carolina Wrens and Song Sparrows. In general, however, cardinals directly associate only with their own kind. Cardinals will form loose flocks during the winter, but these flocks are never as cohesive as those of such flocking birds as American Goldfinches. Cardinals are more often observed in pairs.

For such a bright bird, the male cardinal can be surprisingly difficult to detect as he hides in the thick brush that conceals his presence. Cardinals are nervous birds, however, and usually betray their presence with easily recognized chip notes.

It’s not surprising that such a popular bird has also become associated with many trappings of the Christmas season.

“You see cardinals on greeting cards, stationery, paper plates, paper napkins and tablecloths, doormats, light switch plates, candles, candle holders, coffee mugs, plates, glasses, Christmas tree ornaments and lights, bookmarks, mailboxes, Christmas jewelry,” writes June Osborne in her book The Cardinal. “And the list goes on. Cardinals have become an integral part of the way that many people celebrate the holiday season.”

I can be included among such people. My Christmas decorations include an assortment of cardinal figurines and ornaments. There are other birds — doves and penguins for example — associated with the holiday season, but for me the holidays magnify the importance of one of my favorite birds. The cardinal, in its festive red plumage, appears made to order for a symbol of the holiday season.

Even once the holidays are past, there’s nothing like a glimpse of a Northern Cardinal to add some cheer to a bleak winter day.

Here are some other facts about everyone’s favorite “redbird.”

• The oldest wild Northern Cardinal banded by researchers lived at least 15 years and 9 months.

• For the most part, Northern Cardinals feed on seeds. About 90 percent of this bird’s diet consists of weed seeds, grains, insects and fruits. They visit feeders for sunflower seeds and other offerings.

• The worldwide population of the Northern Cardinal is estimated at 100,000,000 individuals.

• The Northern Cardinal is found throughout eastern and central North America from southern Canada into parts of Mexico and Central America.

• Cardinals have been introduced to California, Hawaii and Bermuda. The Northern Cardinal was once considered a “southern” bird but has expanded its range considerably northward since the 1800s by taking advantage of moderate temperatures, human habitation and extra food provided at bird feeders.

• The average Northern Cardinal weighs only 1.58 ounces.

• The Northern Cardinal is the state bird of seven states, which means this honor has been bestowed on it more than any other species. North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Virginia have all proclaimed the Northern Cardinal as their official state bird.

•••••

I took part in the annual Christmas Bird Count for Elizabethton on Saturday, Dec. 17. I’ll have more on those results in next week’s column, which will also include a summary of the Roan Mountain Christmas Bird Count. I had a good time, although the day started out damp and cold.

•••••

A feathery phantom stirred up the Rock Pigeons along Sycamore Street as I was leaving work on Tuesday afternoon. I glanced skyward and enjoyed a good view of a Cooper’s Hawk skirting over the roofs of the buildings along the street. I didn’t observe the hawk capturing a pigeon for dinner, but I am sure the raptor is occasionally successful at securing himself one as a meal.

To share your own sighting, make a comment or ask a question, call me at 297-9077 or send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or bstevens@starhq.com. I’m also on Facebook.

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