Sunday, February 9, 2014

Don't tell the Cardinals that it's Too Cold to Sing

A few mornings ago the temperature was below zero again; the landscape was covered by a blanket of fresh snow – but somehow a few Northern Cardinals got the idea that it was time to begin singing their spring songs. Perching on high branches of isolated meadow trees, the red birds let loose their familiar and sweetly whistled songs. Fear not, they will not begin nesting anytime soon. It will be months before any breeding gets underway. 
Somewhat usual among songbirds - female Cardinals also sing songs
The Cardinal is a finch species and therefore a relative of the White-throated Sparrow
Just lately the males have been becoming increasingly territorial. At the nature preserve’s feeding stations, male Cardinals have been spending more time and effort chasing each other around than feeding. One particular male cardinal has resumed his perennial battle with his own reflection in the windows and side-view mirrors of my car. He’s been fighting this very same devilishly handsome enemy for 2 years now. He also dances around on the car’s hood – scratching the paint with his claws. Good thing that I’m not a fastidious car owner. The truth is – just being able to witness his antics are worth any scratches.
Taking a break from dueling with the nemesis bird that lives inside the mirror
Now for a little tap dance on the hood
Hey there he is inside the barn too!
Most of us take the presence of our Nation’s reddest bird for granted now, but the species was not always present in Central New York. A Century ago there were no Cardinals anywhere near us. It was only the southernmost New York counties that could boast of having any at all. When songbirds obtained legal protection by the passing of the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918), gunners finally began refraining from shooting them off of their perches – and the species began to expand throughout the state. By the 1960s they were in the process of establishing themselves in the Mohawk Valley. Now, a half century later, they are just about everywhere in the State except for the higher elevations of the Adirondack Mountains and the Tug Hill Plateau where the forests are too dense and the winter snows are too deep.
Cardinals posses powerful seed cracking bills
Bird feeders helped facilitate the range expansion of the Cardinal
An individual Cardinal may sing a variety of songs
The expansion of the Cardinal was facilitated by the patchwork of meadows, woodlots and suburban yards that characterize human dominated landscapes. Though this type of fragmented habitat works against most other songbirds, for Cardinals, it’s just about perfect. The growing pastime of bird feeding and the plethora of feeding stations that arose especially in the last 50 years have further enabled the expansion of Cardinal populations. 
The male Cardinal feeds his mate as part of their courtship ritual
A cardinal nest with newly hatched young
A young fledgling Cardinal - fresh out of the nest 
Cardinals are non-migratory; in other words, they pretty much stay on the same habitat year-round. Their large seed-cracking bills are strong enough to break seeds and nuts that other less endowed species can’t deal with. In wintertime Cardinals usually move together in flocks of up to 20 birds. They travel among habitats rich in wild berries and seeds. Almost invariably there will be a few well-stocked bird feeders included in their daily circuit. Interestingly, Cardinals are often the first birds to arrive at a bird feeder in the morning – sometimes coming right before dawn. They are also very often the last visitors for the day  leaving just after dusk. 
By the end of the summer the young Cardinal's bill will begin to turn orange
Cardinals may continue to be fed by their parents for a month after fledging
An immature male molts into adult plumage
Cardinal song is famously quite varied. One individual may sing several distinct variations of song. Regional dialects also exist – so in one part of the country, a Cardinal’s primary song may be quite different that in another region. Female Cardinals also sing songs, which is somewhat unusual in the world of songbirds. Cardinals also have other distinctive vocalizations including warning calls and contact calls. The male will give a hearty trill during courtship. Also during courtship the male will make food offerings to his mate. And then, in a manner that mimics the behavior of begging nestlings, the female may quiver her wings when accepting the gift. This “prenuptial” feeding likely helps to prove that the male can be a good provider for a new clutch on the way.
Perhaps one of the world's most photogenic birds
Cardinals are not particularly shy birds - there's no trick in getting close to them

Skulking through the rose brambles and Honeysuckle boughs
The female Cardinal's plumage is more subtle, but just as beautiful

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