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8 Things You Might Not Know About Northern Cardinals

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Interested in learning more about the birds who call High Park home? Check out our Birds of the City online naturalist course and build on your birding skills from the comfort of your home!

Whether you’re watching from the warmth of your living room or walking through the woods, winter can be a wonderful time for bird-watching! Though there are many birds that can be seen during the winter season, one winter bird that everyone enjoys is the beautiful Northern Cardinal. The contrast of their bright red feathers against the snowy landscape, barren tree branches, and deep evergreen needles can always brighten your day!
8 Things You Might Not Have Known About Northern Cardinals
  1. Family Comes First
Cardinals are monogamous birds that pair up for a year or longer, although some couples mate for life. During courtship, males prove their strength by finding seeds for the female and feeding them to her one at a time, from his beak to hers. This courtship display looks a lot like kissing. Male and female Cardinals will share parenting responsibilities. That’s right! They will take turns feeding and nesting their kids. If more eggs are laid, the male will mostly focus on raising fledglings while the female will focus on indicating her new eggs until they are ready to hatch. 
  1. When in Doubt, “Ant” it Out
Cardinals sometimes partake in a behaviour known as “anting”. This is when they purposely place red ants on their feathers. There are still some unknowns around why Cardinals “ant”, but it is believed that the ants eat or repel feather parasites! The formic acid secretions by the ants can also prevent the growth of bacterial and fungal infections.
  1. You are What You Eat
The Northern Cardinals are also known to be granivorous bird. This means that their diet is primarily seeds. Their short and cone-shaped beaks are built to break open shells and hulls of seeds. These birds will get their red feathers from food! The red pigment in the male Cardinal’s feathers comes from carotenoids in the foods that they eat, like berries. If these pigment-triggering foods are in short supply, their feathers may fade to a more brownish colour. On a very rare occasion, when there is a lack of red pigment in the feathers of these birds, it can be replaced by a yellow-orange colour. This change in their feathers is where you will see a Yellow Cardinal! This vibrant yellow is typically caused by a genetic mutation called xanthochroism where the red pigment from their food is replaced by yellow. However, another reason for yellow feathers is due to stress, poor diet, or illness.    Cardinals will usually be the first birds to visit bird feeders at dawn and the last birds to visit in the evening. Experts believe the reason is that there is less competition from other birds during these times. When males approach the feeder during these times, they might appear to be less noticeable in low lighting. This feature gives them more security from predators. So when the sun is setting or rising in the morning, set out a blend of seeds such as sunflowers, or shelled peanuts for these seed-loving birds.
  1. Going Bald
Northern Cardinals will occasionally lose all the feathers on their heads and show bare black or dark gray skin. This is a natural part of their moulting cycle that happens in late summer after the breeding season has finished. Like other birds, they are shedding their old worn feathers to make room for new ones to grow. However, in some cases, mite or parasite infestations can contribute to this temporary baldness. In both cases, the feathers do eventually regrow!
  1. She’s Got Pipes
Unlike many species of songbirds where only the males can vocalize, both male and female Northern Cardinals can sing. Females will sing when they are in the nest as a way of signalling to their mate to bring them food. Males will sing during courtship and defend their nesting territory.  Female Cardinals will express themselves using more elaborate songs compared to the males and can sing up to two dozen different tunes. Both males’ and females’ vocal patterns will differ slightly depending on the regions the birds are located in. This is similar to how the speech of one language can change depending on the place.
  1. Territorial
Cardinals are very territorial birds, especially during the breeding season. The males, and sometimes even the females, are quick to fight off intruders. They demonstrate their anger with a sharp tink-tink-tink call and a lowering of their crest, then they attack by dive-bombing. There have been instances where these birds have injured themselves by fighting with their own reflections because they think they’re fighting with intruders.
  1. Flock Together
Despite their territorial nature during the breeding season, Northern Cardinals let their guard down in the winter. They will form flocks with many different species of birds like Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, Tufted Titmice, and American Goldfinches. Being in these larger groups helps them forage when insects and other food sources are harder to access. Furthermore, unlike many other birds, Northern Cardinals are usually non-migratory birds. This means they will choose to stay during the winter months, in the home they picked during the spring/summer.  Many birds will migrate to a different habitat as they are dependent on insects or fruits for their diet. Because Cardinal birds’ diet is mostly nuts they can stay year-round in their home. 
  1. Religious Roots
Northern Cardinals were named after Catholic Bishops because the colour of their feathers resembles the red robes worn by Roman Catholic Cardinals. Though the cold of winter can sometimes stop you from stepping outside, it is one of the ideal times to enjoy bird-watching. When the sun is shining during the winter season, plan a trip to High Park to experience bird-watching. While you’re there, keep an eye out for Northern Cardinals and try to notice some of the unique facts! Whether it be with friends or family, we have something for everyone. Take the time to book a family nature walk, school event, or our “Birds of the City” Online Naturalist course for adults  

Interested in learning more about the birds who call High Park home? Check out our Birds of the City online naturalist course and build on your birding skills from the comfort of your home!

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