Coles County Wild Things

Coles County Wild Things

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Northern Cardinal in Illinois

The following is from Esther Lutz, East Central Illinois Master Naturalist for University of Illinois Extension in Coles County.

Northern Cardinal in Illinois

A favorite among bird watchers, the brilliant red plumage and distinctive crest of the Northern Cardinal are familiar sights in the winter backyards of Illinois. Originally from the southern states, it is one of several species of southern birds that has been expanding its range northward during this century, partly due to climate and habitat changes and to the availability of food at birdfeeders and in natural environments.

The Northern Cardinal was named by sixteenth century American settlers because its stunning red plumage reminded them of the bright red robes worn by the top officials – the cardinals – of the Roman Catholic Church. The birds, with their large feather crests, just naturally look like royalty. It is not unusual to find these birds gracing holiday items such as towels, table linens, festive dishes, Christmas cards, and tree ornaments. Indeed, the stunning red likeness of the cardinal has become a welcome and familiar symbol of the holiday season.

Cardinalis cardinalis – Northern Cardinal

Ranging from seven and a half to nine inches from beak to tail, the male cardinal sports a black splash of hair-like feathers around its blunt, conical, orange-red bill. Its bill was aptly built for crushing seeds and insects, sometimes even small prey animals such as snails. The female, less showy than the male, is a tawny brown color with rusty red areas showing subtly on her wings and tail. She sports the same jaunty crest and body form as the male, and shares his penchant for singing loud and often. They have quite a varied musical repertoire consisting of loud, clear whistles that are usually repeated several times – whoit, whoit, whoit, what-cheer, what-cheer, what-cheer, purty, purty, purty, cheedle, cheedle, cheedle. Cardinals also have a distinctive, metallic "tsip" call note. Males and females may sing alternately, as if in response to each other. Some scientists believe that when the female sings on the nest, she is telling the male that she and the young need food. Unlike most birds which sing mainly in the spring to attract mates and establish territories, cardinals sing all through the year.

The cardinal's rich red coloring and its willingness to come to feeders make it a common sight year round, most often in the early morning and during the hour just before sunset, when few other birds are around. These shy creatures are often the first ones active at dawn and the last ones to roost at dusk. We frequently see them at our feeders throughout the day, especially in harsh weather, sometimes flocking in groups of both males and females, and often simply in pairs, feeding together.

While found in a variety of environments, cardinals prefer an edge habitat – a place where woodland and open space meet. They frequent open woods, thickets, forest edges, and parks, settling anywhere that they can find ample food, water, and shelter. Chances of enticing them to feeders are excellent here in the Midwest and in the East, and really anywhere south of the Great Lakes in winter.

Some cardinals maintain their pair bonds throughout the winter months, while others gather in loose flocks. To create or reestablish a pair bond, the species engages in what is known as "courtship feeding", where the male offers a seed to the female, which she accepts and eats. This behavior can sometimes be observed at backyard feeders. They nest in dense shrubs or thickets, or in a low area of a conifer, the female building an open cup-shaped nest of twigs, weeds, and leaves lined with hair and fine grass. She will incubate three to four whitish to bluish or greenish-white eggs for twelve to thirteen days. Two broods a season is fairly common. The youngsters have dull-colored bills for the first two or three months, and generally resemble the females in coloring. Yearling birds are the ones that colonize new territories, while the adults, fiercely territorial, are more apt to stay put in an area.

How do we attract cardinals to our backyards? Since we in Illinois do live in cardinal territory, it's not difficult to lure them with a simple plan involving three key elements – food, water, and shelter. Because their diet is so diverse, offering a variety of seeds, fruits, and nuts is sure to attract them to our feeders. Be sure to include black oil sunflower seeds (a favorite), safflower seeds, cracked corn, apples, or peanuts. Place the goodies on a platform or hopper feeder near shrubs or tree cover, since they like to forage low or near the ground. The thickets and evergreens in our yards will provide ample shelter and roosting sites where they will feel secure and comfortable in cold, harsh weather.

Water is especially important as these birds require it for daily drinking and bathing. Consider maintaining a heated birdbath in winter so the water doesn't freeze, or simply replenish the supply often.

In winter, it is always thrilling to look out and see a group of these brilliant "redbirds" and their mates hopping about the yard or in the bushes, flocking to the feeders against the crisp, white backgrounds of December, January, and February. The frequent presence of these timid birds seem to liven up the winter landscape and lift our spirits with their showy plumage and cheerful songs. Attracting cardinals is what prompts many beginning bird watchers to put out first offerings of food. Small wonder that so many states claim this stunning creature as their state bird (including Illinois).

When our yards fall prey to winter's icy grip, it is truly wonderful that nature provides such entertaining and colorful diversions for us to sit back and enjoy from the warmth of our homes. Without the red brilliance of our cardinal friends to sustain us, the holidays truly just wouldn't be the same.

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