Cardinals — a spot of color in the winter

Pots-&-Plants-websiteNothing brings more pleasure than to see a very red bird on our feeder in winter. Cardinals are a common sight to most of us in the Midwest. They were originally a bird of the southern states, but have gradually moved north. Cardinals are not migrating birds and some suspect it is because of bird feeders they are being found further north. I see a lot of them but as a young person I cannot remember seeing any. They are so popular, they are the state bird of seven states.

These red birds are not only visually pleasing, but they have a diet of about 30 percent insects, helping the control of voracious pests. Their main diet is seeds, the favorite being sunflower seeds which is what most birders supply for them. Cardinals are ground feeders, but will readily come to platform feeders.

If I do not get my tray feeder filled, they will feed from the enclosed feeder. It is a little harder for them as it has a narrower place to sit. But not to worry, most bird feeding is for us and not the birds as they do quite well without our help. Be sure to have adequate cover near the feeder such as a bush or small tree. Cardinals are slower to flee from predators than most birds. They have many foes such as number one cats, plus raccoons, skunks, owls and crows.

Cardinals will eat melon, nuts, corn, squash seeds and suet. In my yard, they visit the feeders in early morning or later in the evening. They seem to wait until other birds are not feeding. Cardinals stay at the food and eat rather than carrying it away as some birds do.

Many say cardinals are quite tame and allow people close. I have not found this to be true. Mine will retreat when I am quite far away. Cardinals stay permanently within a short distance from where hatched. There are several varieties of cardinals; maybe I have a family with a different set of rules.

These birds, (the only crested birds in the U.S. ) live to be from 4 to 15 years old , they nest in thick shrubbery, brushy areas, low trees, deciduous or evergreen , edges of woods, sometimes quite near buildings. The nest is about eight feet or closer to the ground, loosely made of sticks and grass. They have from two to five eggs, speckled wit brownish spots.

The female builds the nest with the male helping supply the material. Mom incubates the eggs, but both feed the young. The male will also feed his mate. I have seen him do this at the feeder to the female and to fledglings. It is a thrilling procedure to watch. He seems so gentle. These birds sing a lot, especially in spring and fall. The song is kind of a short whistle and a chip-chip. The female will even sing on the nest, when she thinks the chicks are hungry, I suppose.

The male is all red with a black mask, color being somewhat lighter when the female is nesting. The female is almost all gray with only touches of light red. Both adults have orange red conical bills for cracking seeds. The young are marked very similar to the female until fully grown with the exception of its bill. It is gray to black.

When I see the male feeding another at the feeder, I can tell if it is a young bird or his mate because of the bill. Cardinals mate for life, but do not stay together in winter. He finds her again in the spring just as he comes to us to enhance our enjoyment of this glorious season.

Betty Winscher is a Master Gardener Emeritus and can be reached at (320) 584-8077 or via e-mail at [email protected]