Brooklyn Bird Watch: Northern Cardinal

Photos of the Northern Cardinal are probably more responsible than any other bird for getting people to open field guides. The bright red male Cardinal is one of the most ‘watched for’ birds in the world, and one of the most popular among amateur bird watchers. 

A mid-sized songbird, Northern Cardinals differ from cardinal cousins generally in feeding habits: they tend to stay low in shrubs and forage on or near the ground, often in pairs.

In my own experience watching the male, I find that his partner, the less colorful and less popular female Cardinal, always remains closer to cover and safety. For example, the male ventured onto the concrete patio where I waited to photograph him. But then, I also managed to get a photo of the female, (shown in the photo near a wheel for cover, near the same patio where the male had been in the open.) In the photo of the female, to highlight how they travel together, she waited for him undercover until he returned to join her just before they disappeared at the same spot from where they appeared a few minutes earlier. Although not a classic bird shot, it does seem to validate what the bird professionals say about how monogamous these cardinal couples really are. For example, as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology points out: “Both parents feed nestlings. The male may feed fledglings while the female begins the next nesting attempt, as they have two or three broods per year.”

Photo by Joseph Palmer

Although her male counterpart seems to attract all the photographers, nevertheless, the female cardinal is a beautiful bird in her own right.  Again, as the Cornell Lab “Cool Facts” noted: “Only a few female North American songbirds sing, but the female Northern Cardinal does, and often while sitting on the nest. This may give the male information about when to bring food to the nest. A mated pair shares song phrases, but the female may sing a longer and slightly more complex song than the male.” 

Photo by Heather Wolf

Another nice thing about having Cardinals living in a surrounding urban landscape is that during the early morning silence before all the traffic noise begins, especially in the summer, as Cornell describes it, one can hear the “sweet whistle” of the Cardinals. 

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The Northern Cardinal is the official state bird of many Eastern states, including Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. (In Illinois, schoolchildren were polled and selected the Northern Cardinal as state bird back in 1929.)


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