cardinals on a juniper branch Here it is, only the beginning of December, not even officially winter, and already I’m craving color.  While the new snow is beautiful and I relish the opportunities to ski through this picture perfect landscape, there is just too much black and white.  Sunset and sunrise can provide us with some gorgeous shades of pink and orange, but still we crave more.

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Male and female cardinal

If you are lucky you can get that splash of color from a single species of bird. Cardinals (officially known as Northern Cardinals)  are the most strikingly beautiful, candy cane red birds in this hemisphere in the winter months.  The females, with their grayish brown plumage and a touch of rouge on their wings, are pretty but just don’t make it, in terms of adding color to the winter scene.

Have you noticed how we decorate our homes in December with so much of this one color:  Poinsettas, Santas, candy canes, Christmas stockings, anything with red in or on it, is sure to be part of a Holiday setting.  It is a color that causes us to wake up, to feel more alive and in this darkest month of the year, we can all use that kind of stimulation.  In fact, studies have shown that there is an actual physical reaction to red, with an increase in our respiration and raised blood pressure.

Cardinals have been gradually working their way northwards over the past century.  This is one migration that is not related to climate change, but to human behavior.  Cardinals, as you can probably tell by looking at their heavy, reddish-orange bills are mainly seed eaters, and over the past century, more and more people have put up bird feeders in their yards, and the birds have followed; kind of along the lines of  ‘if you build it, they will come’.

Blue Jays and cardinals in a tree

A birch tree decorated in red and blue (jays)

Today they are common in cities and suburbs alike, as well as in rural areas with a good seed supply.  Not surprisingly they have become well-loved wherever they have settled.  Seven eastern and southern states have chosen the Northern Cardinal as their state bird.

You can keep cardinals coming to your feeders with a mix of seeds, but they especially like Cardinal Crunch, with its mix of sunflower and safflower seeds.  When bird feeders are empty, cardinals will eat the seeds of ash and pine trees and the seeds in the fruits of wild grape, sumac and dogwood, and any other wild fruits that may be available.  They will also eat insects during the summer season when they have young to feed.

Cardinals are quiet in these winter months, having no courtship or territorial concerns, and so we can just focus on their feathered perfection.  These are birds that have been providing Americans with inspiration for centuries and I will close with an appropriate quote from John James Audubon.  “In richness of plumage, elegance of motion, and strength of song, this species surpasses all its kindred in the United States.”

By Kate Crowley