While the robin is the welcome harbinger of spring, coming up from its southern haunts just as winter loses its grasp on the region, a brighter bird rules the height of the season. The cardinal’s cherry red plumage amidst the brown bare branches shines like the neighbor’s Camaro coming out of storage to hit the dusty streets of town on that first warm day. No other bird in song or splendor can lay claim to spring the way the cardinal can with its resounding sweet-sweet-sweet-sweet staking out its territory high up in the tree tops.
Over the last century, the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) has spread throughout much of southern Minnesota to the point where it has become commonplace in many settings, both urban and rural. Season-by-season, the bird continues the expansion of its range into eastern South Dakota and southeastern North Dakota as well. It is one of the most popular and recognizable feeder birds, drawn often to black oil seeds provided by homeowners. At the feeder and in the trees, it stands out among its contemporaries, particularly the male which boasts a pointy crest of feathers atop its head in the bright cherry red color that adorns the majority of its body, which is trimmed in a lighter, almost pink fringe. The female is primarily an olive green with hints of red in her crest and on the edges of her wings and tail. Despite not being as flashy, she is easily recognized as well.
The northern cardinal is very territorial, and males will call out their claim with a variety of songs, establishing their boundaries, and they’ll frequently duel when they encounter one another or even their own reflections in windows! It is a common joy this time of year to hear three, four or even more males in a three block radius competing for attention of the females residing in the immediate area. The males sing a variety of songs, usually from high up, with choruses of sweet-sweet-sweet-sweet, interspersed with the train-whistle like arrangements of WHO-eet, WHO-eet, WHO-eets that fade lower as the song ends. When startled by a passing dog walker, feral cat or nearby hawk, the cardinal repeats a tinny chip as an alarm call, letting all birds in the area know of a possible predator.
While cardinals are typically heard or observed spending a majority of their time higher up in the treetops, they come lower in the spring to gather nesting materials such as grasses, vines, and dried plant stalks and throughout the year to feed on grains and oil seeds, such as sunflower seeds. Nests are assembled predominantly by the female cardinal in trees or thickets about 10 feet or so off of the ground. There she will lay between two and five light blue eggs speckled with dark flecks of brown and purple. The eggs hatch in approximately 13 days, and the young will leave the nest about ten days later. A mating pair of cardinals may rear three broods in a season, sometimes four, helping the prolific bird continue to expand its range throughout the area with a significant number of offspring each spring and summer.
The cardinal is an exciting part of this season in the region, both in its easily-recognizable get-up and its resounding call which is a veritable treetop concert. Listen close and you’ll understand why this bright red bird has a justifiable claim to the title “King of Spring”…in our outdoors.