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A collection of cardinals. February 1, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood would just like to boast a bit about the large flock of cardinals, including six brilliant red males, that appeared at our cabin feeder yesterday afternoon. Of course, we always have cardinals at our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, located in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. But six males at once! This is a first for us. Backlit by the snow, they looked like they were posing in hopes that a famous nature photographer would happen by. (No such luck. Our friend Ben and Silence are both photographically challenged.)

After speculating about whether these cardinals had finally come far enough south to reach our property, or had migrated back to their northern breeding grounds with the lengthening days, our friend Ben had a rush of brains to the head (in the immortal words of a friend’s mother) and picked up the phone. Fortunately, I caught our expert birding friend, Rudy, just before he raced out the door for an annual hawk count.

Turns out that these cardinals are actually local residents. “When there’s snow and ice and it’s bitterly cold, cardinals have trouble finding food,” Rudy told me. “So they leave their usual territories and band together to look for sources of food like people’s feeders.” Wow, what a great reason to keep those feeders filled!

Cardinals aren’t too fond of tube feeders, preferring to feed on the ground or on a wide ledge like the ones on cabin-style feeders (also called hopper feeders for reasons unknown to our friend Ben; they look just like little cabins to me). We see them on the ground beneath our tube feeders, which we keep filled with black-oil sunflower seed, a favorite of many kinds of birds,* and both on our cabin feeder and on the ground beneath it, as well as perched in surrounding shrubs waiting their turn. Unlike the tube feeders, we keep the cabin feeder filled with a wild bird seed mix.  

But wait, you say: Don’t cardinals prefer safflower seed? In a word: no. But unlike most birds, cardinals will eat safflower seed when nothing better’s on offer, which is why people sell bags of safflower seed or a safflower/sunflower mix as “cardinal’s delight.” I suppose the idea is to deter other birds and encourage cardinals, but our friend Ben says forget that. Choose a good all-purpose wild bird mix that will attract an abundance of cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, wrens, sparrows, doves, bluejays, woodpeckers, juncos,  and other feeder favorites. Then sit back and enjoy the show!

While I had him on the phone, our friend Ben had another cardinal-related question for Rudy. I always think of male cardinals as a deep red. But the males in this flock, and many others I’ve seen this past year, are a brilliant red that actually looks fluorescent. It of course occurred to our friend Ben that this might be an effect of their snow-white backdrop, but there was a little problem with this hypothesis: They’d also looked fluorescent when there wasn’t any snow. Was this a mutation that had occurred as cardinals began establishing their year-round territories farther and farther north?

Again, the answer was no. Rudy explained that cardinals moult in late summer or early fall, so I had been seeing them in their immaculate new plumage. As spring turns to summer, their feathers become worn and lose their brilliance, so they look darker and duller red. Oh. Thanks, Rudy, for once again straightening our friend Ben out.

So that’s our cardinal story. What’s yours?

* Yes, our friend Ben realizes that it’s grammatically correct to say “kinds of bird,” not “birds,” but it sounds awkward so I’m not doin’ it.

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Comments»

1. Jared - February 3, 2009

Whenever I see a bunch of cardinals (our record is three males and females at the same time) I always feel like we’ve been blessed. Maybe it’s the threes, maybe it’s just the colors. They are so pretty, and I’m glad to know why they look so great in the winter! Thanks!

Thanks, Jared! I was happy to find out, too!


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