Flash of Red on a Gray Day

A flash of red in the trees on a drab, gray winter day catches your eye.  It’s the Northern Cardinal, one of the most recognizable birds in the US. 

A year-round resident in the eastern half of the lower 48 states and continuing south into Mexico, Cardinals make a statement, especially the males.  They’re beautiful, bright and bold.  They’re also the bird to inspire many artistic copies – tea towels, cards and calendars, even the ceramic statue on your grandmother’s coffee table.  

It’s the bird that kick-started the obsession of many future birders, long before you realized how addictive your new passion could be.  If you have feeders in your yard you’ll also notice the cardinal is the early bird – first at the feeders in the morning, and often the last at night.  

Northern Cardinal, Seabrook Island (Photo by Gina Sanders)

But did you ever stop to think about why male cardinals are so red?  And is it your imagination or do they seem to be a brighter red at certain times of the year than others?  

According to The Cornell Lab, Northern Cardinals molt their feathers and grow new ones in late summer and early fall.  The breeding season is over, food is abundant, their old feathers are looking tired and worn.  You may have noticed a Cardinal in the middle of a molt – they’re scruffy, have bare spots of exposed skin on their body, and some even go temporarily bald when they molt their head feathers all at once.  Not their finest moment.

But those ratty old feathers are soon replaced by beautiful new red feathers which reach their peak of brilliance by mid winter.  They definitely stand out on a gray day, or perched in snow covered branches.  

That refreshed brilliant red is also a benefit come breeding season.  One study found that brighter red cardinals tend to mate earlier and nest in higher quality habitats – factors usually associated with more offspring.  

So where does that brilliant red come from?  It comes from carotenoids in their foods – pigments that occur naturally in foods such as red and purple fruits and berries.  Native plants that produce carotenoid rich fruit are best as they also contains fat and proteins so necessary for proper health.  Studies like this remind us that we can help by providing native plants in our environment as they’re most adapted to the local climate, and they tend to have the most nutritious berries and seeds for our local feathered friends.

As for female cardinals, they don’t share the same vibrant red as the males but they’re just as beautiful in their own right with fawn brown feathering and the signature red accents.  The female also does something that many other female songbirds don’t – they sing!  They often sing while on the nest, most likely to communicate with the male as he forages for food.  In fact, the female’s song is often longer and more complex than the male’s.  With all their beauty it’s no wonder the Northern Cardinal was chosen as the state bird for seven states.  

What does the Cardinal mean to you?

For more information about these fabulous birds, check out the sites that inspired this post.



Article Submitted by: Gina Sanders

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