As February arrives, I’m craving color. While the snow is beautiful and I relish the opportunities to ski through this picture perfect landscape, there is just too much monotone of black and white. Sunset and sunrise provide some gorgeous shades of pink and orange, but still I crave more.
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, ruby red birds in this hemisphere in the winter months. I have just
watched the film The Two Popes and it is easy to see how the birds got their name. Although Northern Cardinals have been called ‘redbird’ in some regions, their plumage
matches the robes and hats of the Roman Catholic Cardinals. The scientific name is Cardinalis cardinalis, so we know the name has been around for a long time. The female Cardinals, with their grayish brown plumage and a touch of rouge on their wings, live in the shadow of their colorful mates.
Red is a color that causes us to wake up, to feel more alive in these months when cabin fever is beginning to appear. 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 directly related to climate change, but to human behavior. Cardinals with their heavy, reddish-orange bills are mainly seed eaters, and over the past century, more and more people have put up birdfeeders in their yards, and the birds have followed. That familiar saying, ‘if you build it, they will come’ has been proven over and over.
Today Cardinals are common in cities and suburbs alike, as well as in rural areas with a good wild bird 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 when you buy bird seed that has a mix of seeds, but they especially like Cardinal Crunch. When birdfeeders 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. In the spring and summer when they are raising young, they will add insects to their diet.
Cardinals are quiet in the winter months, with no courtship or territorial concerns, so we can just focus on their feathered perfection. These are birds that have been providing Americans with inspiration for centuries. John James Audubon described them best. “In richness of plumage, elegance of motion, and strength of song, this species surpasses all its kindred in the United States.”
By Kate Crowley