Here in Kentucky, our Cardinals don’t migrate, but stay all winter long. (In fact, Cardinals don’t migrate at all!) They’re a regular visitor to the bird feeder that I keep on the porch, and some have gotten enough used to me that they’ll barely fly away when I refill the feeder.
I ‘m not the only person to have been captivated by these strikingly beautiful birds, and they’ve had admirers for as long as there have been people around to see them. The Cardinal is the State bird of seven different states, and why not?
With that striking scarlet red body, expressive crest, and those clever, bright eyes in his black mask, he’s definitely one-of-a-kind. The female is less bright, but then she needs to be to maintain her camouflage while she incubates her eggs. She’s still very pretty, and they’re delightful to watch as they grab all the sunflower and safflower seeds they can possibly hold before letting anyone else get at the feeder.
Come spring, the male will start to feed the hen as they start to warm up to the idea of starting this year’s family. Scientists think that this “mate feeding” gives the hen a good idea of whether a rooster will be a good provider for the babies to come, and that’s a pretty sensible idea!
Whatever the reason, it’s adorable to see the rooster stuff himself at the feeder, then fly over the driveway to coax the hen into letting him feed her, then returning again for his own meal.
Cardinals will nest twice most years, and so have a better chance of producing babies that will survive into adulthood. Interestingly, Cardinals are one wild bird that’s not disappearing, but is actually expanding its range northward!
Perhaps because birdwatchers like you and I are feeding them regularly, or perhaps they’re just that good at adapting to new environments, but either way they must be a welcome addition to the winter landscape. Few sights are as beautiful as the bright red Cardinal against a snowy background, and the fact that they’ll come to associate you with food has to help.
Cardinal moms get really shy and secretive when they’re nesting. They REALLY don’t like to be disturbed, and will abandon their eggs if they feel at all threatened. If you’re fortunate enough to find a nest, the eggs are a cream or buffy color, with brown spots. The nest is a twiggy thing, but with added bits of bark, leaves, rootlets, and lined with vines grass and hair, then some feathers, it’s pretty substantial.
The Rooster bird will feed the hen while she’s on the nest, and when the babies are within a couple of weeks of flying, the hen begins to build the next nest. That last two weeks before the first chicks become independent, he stays pretty busy, between helping to feed the chicks, feeding the hen, and defending his territory from other Cardinals!
Cardinal hens will lay from two to five eggs in each nest, and she incubates for 12 to 13 days. The male will call her off the nest to feed her, and this is the most dangerous time for the eggs or chicks.
Nests may be parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds, but this isn’t nearly as bad for the Cardinal chicks as it is for other, smaller birds. Cowbird chicks grow at about the same rate as Cardinal chicks, and grow to be about the same size, so they don’t suffer from sharing with the Cowbird chick as badly.
So, enjoy these delightfully bright, feathered friends in your yard or even on your balcony! Set up a feeder and watch them enjoy the extras you provide to make the weather out there a little easier to endure. You’ll find they brighten your day as they do mine!