Birdwatching: Northern Cardinals

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

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.

This is why cardinals are such a widespread and successful species, so much so that no fewer than seven states — North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Virginia — have designated the cardinal as their state bird. Plus think about all the sports teams, college and pro, nicknamed the Cardinals, from baseball in St. Louis to football in the Arizona desert to basketball in western Kentucky.

As so appropriately stated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website: “The male cardinal is perhaps responsible for getting more people to open up a field guide than any other bird. They’re a perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, and style: a shade of red you can’t take your eyes off of. Cardinals don’t migrate and they don’t molt into a dull plumage, so they’re still breathtaking in winter’s snowy backyards.”

The cardinal’s spring song variety is also a source of backyard revelry for all who have endured long, depressing winters. And since female cardinals also sing, the listening pleasure is doubled when these birds are around. In fact, the female cardinal actually sings longer, louder, and more complex songs than the male, especially when she is sitting on eggs in her nest.

One reason for the popularity of the cardinal’s song is that it’s easy for humans to imitate — even for those of us without a speck of musical talent. Just repeat these words in a loud, sweet descending whistle: birdie, birdie, birdie — or — cheer, cheer, cheer — and you’ve got it!

Want to know more about birdwatching? Check out Budd Titlow’s further Birding Adventures.

Excerpted with permission from Bird Brains: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, by Budd Titlow, published by Lyons Press © 2012. Buy this book from our store: Bird Brains.

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