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!


Well, this is a first

Today was warm and sunny, quite a change from all the cold, wet weather we’ve been having here in western Virginia. The birds took full advantage of the beautiful day, singing and chasing after potential mates. Three male Red-winged Blackbirds showed up at the feeders, probably migrating north, but other than that, it was the usual customers – titmice, chickadees, juncos, nuthatches, finches, and woodpeckers.

It’s been my experience that cardinals are often the last visitors to the feeder in the evening, so I wasn’t surprised when I saw this male Northern Cardinal late in the day. I was surprised, though, that he was perched on the suet feeder, of all places.


I did a double-take because I have never seen a cardinal on a suet feeder. Normally, they prefer platform-type feeders or peck around below the feeders, catching the morsels that fall.

I watched him bend down and take a bite, then ran for my camera. I was only able to get one picture before he flew off into the woods. Seeing the cardinal eating from the suet feeder was a first for me, but maybe it’s a more common occurrence than I realize. Anyway, I’ll be watching to see if this particular cardinal has decided he doesn’t want to wait for crumbs!

Morning walk and signs of spring

Even though it looked like a storm was brewing in the distance, Bill and I took advantage of the warmer temps to go for a morning walk.

view of Short Hills

View of our neighbor’s barn further down the valley with the Short Hills in the distance

clouds over mountains

Clouds hanging over Garden Mountain

Walking along the edge of the woods, I was able to get this photo of a male cardinal that watched us curiously from a distance. The beauty of these exquisite birds is even more evident when seen in stark contrast against the bare limbs of the trees on a gray day like today.

Male northern cardinal

With the lengthening days, subtle changes are taking place everywhere. Wearying of winter, I was looking for signs that spring is on its way. The first thing I noticed was the swelling buds on the trees. As the days become warmer, the trees take up water in order to swell the buds and get the leaf-making process underway for the new growing season. The swelling is caused by the pressure of the sap pushing its way to the limb’s extremities.

buds on tree limbs

The buds on the tulip poplars are swelling, and I also noticed that the seed cones have opened and dropped most of their seeds. The viable ones will germinate once the ground warms up enough.

Tulip flowers

On the way back, I saw one of my favorite birds, a White-breasted Nuthatch. This dapper guy didn’t mind pausing his search for insects long enough to pose while I snapped a picture. Despite its wide distribution throughout North America, little is known about the specie’s breeding biology, in part, because they prefer to breed in natural holes in large, old trees, so their nests are often difficult to examine.

white-breasted nuthatch

I came back from the walk feeling encouraged about the signs of spring. All in all, it hasn’t been a bad winter; still, I long for the sounds of birds singing in the morning, the warmth of the sun, and all the wondrous activity of the season of renewal.

“Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart.”
Victor Hugo

First snow

A couple of days ago, we had our first snow of the season. The precipitation started as an icy mix, but quickly changed over to snow. Activity at the bird feeders had been high all morning so I knew the storm was coming. Birds have a special middle-ear receptor called the Vitali organ, which can sense even small changes in barometric pressure. By the time snow began falling, dozens of birds had converged on the feeders.

Dozens of birds
female cardinal

A Yellow-bellied sapsucker, a bird I saw quite a bit last year, but not so far this year, showed up at the suet feeder – I guess his natural food sources had been adequate until now, but the snowstorm had pushed him to come to the feeder.
Yellow-bellied sapsucker

The feeding continued heavily throughout the day as multitudes of birds jockeyed for position at the feeders or waited below to gobble up whatever fell to the ground. It was fascinating to watch the pecking order in action as bigger birds dominated smaller birds, males dominated females, and females dominated younger birds.

Still, it was clear that two Northern blue jays were at the top of the pecking order, at least for the time being. They chased off other birds and grabbed chunks of suet and sunflower seeds, eating them on a nearby branch or flying off to cache them.
Northern blue jay

Cardinals are often the last birds I hear at dusk after the other birds have gone up to roost, their lonely chip calls piercing the quiet of the evening. By now, the other birds were gone, but this solitary male stayed until darkness forced him to leave.
Northern cardinal

Moments later, all the birds were gone. Not a sound could be heard and the only movement was the softly falling snow.

Each moment of the year has its own beauty, a picture which was never before and shall never be seen again.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson