Female Northern Cardinals

I know that I have already written about Northern Cardinals, but I feel that the female Cardinal deserves some special attention. As I mentioned in an earlier post, because of the bright red color of the male Northern Cardinal, the females are often overlooked. But they are really just as interesting to watch and, in my opinion, their subtle hints of red are more striking than the bold display presented by their male counterpart.

The female Cardinal is the same size as the male, 8 ¾ -9 inches. She is a golden brown color with some red highlights on her tail, wings, crest and above her eye. She has a red beak, the same as her male counterpart and she has the same black mask on her face, though usually her mask is smaller and more subtle.

What I love most about the female Cardinals that visit my yard is their sassy attitude. They are just as likely to be aggressive with other birds as a male Cardinal, and there is nothing timid or passive about these ladies. Cardinals are usually one of the larger birds at my feeders and the females have no problem throwing their weight around if need be.

The female Cardinals I have been watching seem more adventurous than the males. The female Cardinals are often balancing on the feeders designed for smaller birds, and figuring out how to perch. Sometimes it takes a few tries, but they usually figure out a good, if awkward, way to balance. The males, either don’t have the patience or maybe have a bit more weight to them making this less likely.

Cardinal couples are monogamous for at least one breeding season, sometimes more. Bird monogamy, and the cheating therein, probably deserves a whole post of its own, and we won’t go into the genetics discussion right now. In one season they will have usually two or three broods. Once the first group have hatched, the male feeds and cares for them while the female goes off to lay and incubate the next clutch.

A Day in the Backyard

A leisurely weekend morning spent in the garden with a book, a cup of tea and my trusty camera, ready for action. Many of my usual customers stopped by, including a pair of Cardinals, several Mourning Doves, House Finches and Goldfinches of both genders and a Catbird. A Brown-Headed Cowbird grabbed a quick snack at my feeder and a Northern Flicker rested on a branch for about a minute, but I wasn’t quick enough with my camera. A young Grackle even took a few drinks from the bird bath.

It is amazing that in just the span of a day or two the baby birds sticking their beaks through the hole of their birdhouse are suddenly up and out. The frantic and awkward flapping which at first glance appears to indicate an injury, is really the international bird body language for “I’m hungry.”

Today the baby House Sparrows that have been living in one of the birdhouses in our yard ventured out into the world. They didn’t venture very far, just a few branches above their home, hopping more than flying from branch to branch. They are still being fed directly by their parents, the adults’ beaks going right into the eager open mouths of the chicks. Their coloring is such that they could almost pass for an adult, if a bit smaller in stature when you have mom or dad right next to them for comparison. But when you look closely, the fluffy, downy feathers are still there.

The quiet, still morning air was constantly pierced with the shrills of much larger babies, the Blue Jays now have their babies out of the nest. I believe their cries rank among my least favorite sounds of the summer. As gawky as the most awkward teenage you can think of, Steve Urkel comes to mind, you could almost think they are so ugly that they are cute, but then they open their mouths and shrill again. The adult Blue Jays had all they could do to satisfy their bottomless-pit children. They came to my feeder, gulped down the food, shoved it down the babies’ throats, repeat. Suddenly breast feeding doesn’t seem that bad.

Northern Cardinals

Despite their ubiquity, the appearance of a Northern Cardinal, especially the male Cardinal, still manages to wow and excite. Perhaps this is because most people can identify them with ease. Or is it because they stand out in a yard or the forest? Any way you try to spin it, the attraction of Cardinals is all about the red. Think about it, there is a reason traffic signs and lights are red. They grab our attention. So does the male Cardinal, often stealing the show from his fellow feeder friends.

Cardinals are very common in my yard, visiting my feeders for long periods, or frequent trips depending on the season. They also brave the winters of New Jersey and do not migrate. This bravery has inspired many a holiday card and we often associate Cardinals with winter and the holiday season. The female Cardinals are often overlooked because they lack the male’s attention-grabbing coloring. Besides her golden brown color, her overall appearance is very similar to the male, and if you look closely, you will see she has red highlights on her wings, crest, tail and over her eyes.

Observing them in my own garden, I would say they are more aggressive than average, but not always unfriendly to birds of other species. I have seen both the males and females chase off sparrows and other birds, but they usually don’t interfere with birds on the opposite side of the feeder. It seems to me they have a very large personal bubble, which the sparrows, being sparrows, don’t seem to understand in the slightest. When they are feeling aggressive you can usually tell, both the male and the female will perk up the crest at the top of their head in warning.

When it comes to their own species, it is a bit more complicated. During the breeding season (Spring and Summer) the males are territorial. I have often seen a pair of Cardinals (one male and one female) visit my yard and feeders together. Sometimes they are a bit more cautious, with one of the pair observing the yard while the other is at the feeder or on the ground. That being said, it isn’t uncommon for them to visit the feeders together. According to my field guides, in winter they live in larger flocks, but I have never seen more than a male and female pair in my yard at one time (not that I am outside observing in the winter nearly as much as the other three seasons).

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cardinals have at least sixteen different calls. I have observed at least two distinct calls. The more high- pitched version is usually what the male uses to attract a mate (in Spring) and they continue to use this call to communicate with each other throughout the summer. He has another call, which consists of an introductory call followed by short, quick whistles, often repeated with the shorter whistles increasing in number: one, then two, then three etc. This seems to be all about territory. Basically, “if you can hear this, you are way to close.” If you are good at whistling, you can imitate them, using the exact number of short whistles they use, right after them. Nothing like a good old whistle battle! Here are some examples of their songs and sounds: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Cardinal/sounds