Prove your humanity

This story is part of our series, Wild Pennsylvania. Check out all of the other stories in the series here

It was originally published on February 27, 2015.

The Northern Cardinal is familiar to even the casual bird watcher. It is the state bird for seven states, more than any other species; and is a common bird in backyards and wooded edges across the eastern and central U.S.

The female is a warm brown and tan with patches of red on the wings, tail and crest. But it’s the bright red males that most people recognize and that inspired their name—their color is reminiscent of the red vestments worn by Roman Catholic cardinals.

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As with many bird species, this plumage brightness is associated with mate quality. In cardinals, brighter males have better territories, higher nest success, and take on a greater role in feeding the young. This allows females to prepare for subsequent nesting attempts.

Both the male and female cardinals sing, which is unusual—in most species, only the male sings. Songs are used to defend a territory, to enhance the pair bond between the male and female and to communicate important pieces of information between the pair.

For example, when nesting, the female stays on the nest, and the male brings food to her while she incubates and broods the young. When the male is nearby, he sings to the female. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that if she matches his song by singing the same notes, she is saying, “stay away; we’re not hungry right now.”  However, if she sings a different tune, she is saying, “hurry up with the food; we are hungry!”

Both males and females have large conical beaks, ideal for crushing and cracking open seeds. They also eat grapes and other fruit, insects and invertebrates such as beetles and snails.

Both can be aggressive when defending their territory. Sometimes, this aggression becomes misplaced—as when a cardinal will continue to attack its own reflection in a window. We once had a cardinal we called “bonkers’ because it pecked at our family room window daily from February through July for two years straight.

Cardinals are year-round residents, meaning they don’t migrate to warmer climates in winter but instead tough it out near where they bred during the summer. So, wherever you are, you are likely to hear the “cheer, cheer, cheer” of the brilliant red cardinal.

Bird calls for this segment were provided by The Macaulay Library at Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and recorded by Wilbur L. Hershberger, Garrit Vyn and Geoffrey A. Keller.