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What Time is it in Nature: Northern Cardinal

January 4, 2013

Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are very common birds at the Prairie Ridge feeders at this time of year. In a time of drab colors and leafless trees, these bright red birds add a splash of color to the landscape.

male and female Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinals are birds in the finch family with a distinct crest protruding off the top of their heads. As with many bird species, the males are brighter and more conspicuous with brilliant red feathers covering their bodies and a black mask around the face. Females and juvenile males are more drab and are mostly brown with reddish wings and tails. Both sexes have a strong, stout red beak specialized for cracking seeds.

Northern Cardinals are common throughout the eastern United States and are often found in areas populated by people, drawn in by seeds at bird feeders. Northern Cardinals naturally prefer open woodlands and nest in brushy shrubs and brambles. Pairs choose a nesting site together, then both sexes gather nest materials while the female builds the nest. Males will fiercely guard their breeding territory from other males, sometimes fighting with other males or attacking their own reflection in windows or mirrors. Female Northern Cardinals are among only a handful of female songbirds that sing and will often be heard singing while sitting on the nest. Scientists think that these songs might be a form of communication with their mates. Pairs typically produce 2-5 young a year and remain together through the breeding season and the winter, but may seek a new mate the following season. However, many will mate for life.

Northern Cardinals do not migrate, so they are found throughout their range year-round. While they can fly, they usually only make short flights, preferring to hop from place to place instead. You will often find them on the ground searching for the seeds, fruits, and insects that make up their diet.

The Northern Cardinal is the North Carolina state bird, a bird we share with 6 other states.

There have been dozens of Northern Cardinals active at Prairie Ridge recently. Look by the bird feeders down the hill from the outdoor classroom when you visit. You’re sure to see Cardinals there!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

Photos used under Creative Commons license. male cardinal image by Stephen Wolfe and female cardinal image by Ken Thomas.

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