Why so red, Mr. Cardinal?

The flamboyant male Northern cardinal sings from high perches when courting, and unlike many other birds, when fall rolls around, doesn’t trade in his red breeding plumes for a drab winter coat. While this might seem to make him an obvious target for a hawk looking for a meal, there’s a scientific basis for both his bright coloring and enthusiastic singing: to advertise what a good mate he will make.

Mr. Red

According to Birds of America Online, brighter males have a higher rate of reproductive success, hold better territories, and offer more parental care. By responding to the male’s redness in her mate selection, females encourage the evolution of bright coloring in males. At the same time, the female’s muted colors provide her and her nest with a protective camouflage that the male lacks.

Despite its low rate of nesting success (typically, fewer than 40 percent of nests fledge at least one young), their long breeding season (often producing two broods), the fact that they are adaptable and can live almost anywhere, and do not migrate (which is risky business, at best), cardinals are a successful and common species—so it’s safe to assume that Nature knows what she’s doing with the male’s bright red plumage!

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4 thoughts on “Why so red, Mr. Cardinal?

  1. I enjoyed reading this just now with my afternoon tea. Two cardinal pairs are flitting around the debris pile after having my oak tree trimmed. Amazing how they survive the winter. A cheery sight on a cold, snowy afternoon.

    • Without the assistance of bird feeders, many species, like the cardinal, would not be able to live in some of the northern climates where they currently live. They are a cheery sight indeed, especially in contrast to the “grays” of winter. We are greening up here. I think winter has had her last hoorah in Virginia!

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