Birdwatching: Northern Cardinals

Northern cardinals are notorious for being fierce defenders of their territory.

| January 29, 2014

  • Northern cardinals are the official birds of no fewer than seven states.
    Photo courtesy Lyons Press
  • “Bird Brains” is Budd Titlow’s fascinating and humorous look at the behaviors and antics of a variety of bird species.
    Cover courtesy Lyons Press

Taken from the birding adventures of professional wildlife biologist and photographer Budd Titlow, Bird Brains (Lyons Press, 2013) looks at the antics, behaviors, and funny idiosyncrasies of wild birds. Each entry is another tale pulled from hours of birdwatching, where the personality of the various species of birds are on full display. This excerpt, from, from Section 4, "Southern Soliloquies," highlights the northern cardinal, a staunch defender of its own territory.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Bird Brains.

Northern Cardinals — Persistent Reflection Fighters

In the bird world, just as in the human world, persistence usually pays off in success. Even when the methods just don’t seem to make any sense at all.

I used to sit in my office in Durham, North Carolina, watching a male northern cardinal repeatedly flailing himself against the window panes behind my desk. Smash-retreat, smash-retreat, smash-retreat! On and on and on this went, day after day.



The bird was fighting off his own reflection, thinking it was an interloping male trying to weasel its way into his territory. I even stuck hawk silhouettes on the window panes, but nothing helped. The seemingly possessed bird just kept going at it, like a prize fighter trying to land a knock-out punch. Fortunately, the persistent reflection fighter never seemed to really hurt himself — he just never gave up his battle. My aunt tells a similar story about watching a male cardinal repeatedly attack the side mirror of her car parked in her Vermont driveway. Same deal — the bird would fly into the mirror, flailing its wings wildly, fall back, then come flailing away again — time after time.

While both male cardinals my aunt and I were watching thought they were aggressively defending their territories from suspected intruders, they were really just wasting their time and energy. But the intensity and persistence with which they were going about their tasks shows that male cardinals, in general, are very successful at defending their territories from intruders of both their own and other bird species.



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