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8 Things You Might Not Know About Northern Cardinals
February 24, 2021 by Haya Aldoori

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!

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!

Since these birds are much more than just their beautiful feathers we would like to share a list of 8 things you might not know about Northern Cardinals:

1. Serial monogamists

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.

2. When in doubt, "ant" it out

Cardinals sometimes partake in a behaviour known as "anting" by which 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.

3. You are what you eat

Cardinals get their red feathers from food! The red pigment in the male Cardinal’s feathers come 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.

4. 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 molting cycle; however, in some cases, mite or parasite infestations can contribute to this temporary baldness. In both cases, the feathers do eventually regrow!

5. 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 signaling to their mate to bring them food.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. Religious roots

Northern Cardinals were named after Catholic Bishops because the colour of their feathers resembles the red robes worn by Roman Catholic Cardinals.

Keep an eye out for Northern Cardinals on your next winter visit to High Park!

To learn more about birds with the High Park Nature Centre, check out our “Birds of the City” Online Naturalist Course for adults!

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