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A Cardinals Life

By: Lacy Hilliard
Tomahawk Writer, Photographer

The stunning contrast of a bright red cardinal set against a glittery white snowfall is just one of winter’s splendors. However, the non-migratory Northern Cardinal lives in abundance in the mountains of East Tennessee and can be seen throughout the year dwelling everywhere from suburban areas, creek side rhododendron thickets, and forestland. Though the Northern Cardinal may be common, they certainly aren’t ordinary.
As is common in the bird world, it is the male cardinal that has the most striking appearance. Their brilliant ruby colorings can also be an indication of how the bird is faring in the wild and where it calls home. The brighter the coloring, the more likely the male cardinal is to call dense vegetation home and to be more successful reproductively. The female cardinal is mostly grayish-brown but is tinted red on her crest, tail, and under her wings. The different shades of red on the crest of the female cardinal are a good indication as whether or not she is reproductively active. Both female and male cardinals are similar in size, weighing less than two ounces with a wing span of about twelve inches.
Cardinals are known as ground foragers and feed on a variety of seeds, fruits, and insects. They are common visitors to bird feeders especially if the feeder contains sunflower seeds. They have powerful beaks that enable them to crack open even the toughest seeds.
A typical life span for a cardinal in the wild is three years, however there is a documented case of a Northern Cardinal living in captivity to the miraculous age of twenty-eight. During the cardinal’s lifetime, they will likely only venture about a mile away from their birthplace. Several predators including owls, small hawks, raccoons, and red foxes threaten cardinals. Catbirds, blue jays, chipmunks, crows, and snakes prey upon cardinal eggs.
The Northern Cardinals breeding season begins in early spring. Male cardinals become extremely territorial at this time and can even be observed fighting with their own reflection. Predominantly, Northern Cardinals mate for life and the territorial behavior is usually not a result of fighting for a mate, but rather fighting for prime nesting real estate. The female builds the small, shallow, four-layer nest anywhere from five feet to twelve feet from the ground. The nest is comprised of coarse twigs, leaves, bark, and grasses. Females lay two to five eggs with an incubation period of only eleven to thirteen days. The cardinal’s egg is pale green or grayish-brown in color with darker brown speckles. Occasionally, another bird (most commonly a catbird) will lay an egg in the cardinals’ nest. Often, the cardinal will raise the intruder’s young without ever realizing the difference. Both the male and the female are responsible for tending to the hatchlings– gathering food and protecting the nest from predators. This is no small order, as the newborn cardinals must be fed two to three times per hour. However tedious the job of a cardinal parent, it is short-lived. Cardinal hatchlings are full-grown within only eight days of hatching. By day ten, the hatchlings are ready to take flight.
Though cardinals spend most of their time with their mate, when food becomes scarce in the winter, they can sometimes be seen foraging with other non-migratory species like dark-eyed juncos, white-throated sparrows, tufted titmice, and goldfinches. Though the species mostly live together in harmony, the male cardinal takes precedence over all food sources and will use aggression if necessary.
Most non-migratory female birds are without song. The female Northern Cardinal is an exception. The male and female cardinals’ song can most often be heard in the early morning hours. During mating season, the female becomes more vocal. Researchers believe that her mating-time vocalizations are a sort of ‘honey-do’ list. She calls to her mate, especially when hatchlings are present, likely informing him of potential meals and what he needs to do to fulfill the many needs of the hatchlings.

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