Even though Northern Cardinals are around all year, I only notice them in the winter and spring. Their red plumage is easy to spot against white snow or an icy blue sky. In the spring, their whistling song is one of the first things I hear in the morning (other than my alarm clock and the buzz of the refrigerator). I was lucky enough to find a female sitting on her nest this morning and decided to ask her some burning questions.
A: I love to hear male cardinals sing in the spring! Why do they do it?
C: Hey now, the men can’t take all the credit! I sing too!
A: Really? Isn’t that unusual for songbirds?
C: That’s right, we’re one of the only songstress birds in North America, and we’re proud of it!
A: I can see that. Okay, so why do you sing? Are you trying to attract a mate, or guard a territory like the males
C: Goodness no! Our songs are much more subtle than the guys’. I often borrow phrases of my husband’s song and add my own flavour. That way he knows it’s me.
A: Where is your favorite place to sing? In the shower?
C: Um, no. I don’t take showers. I sing quietly on my nest. After all, I don’t want to attract every predator within 20 metres.
A: Okay, so why do you sing?
C: A lady can have her secrets, can’t she? Maybe I’m saying “I’m hungry” or “I’m full” or “There’s a predator nearby” or “The kids are driving me crazy!” or even “Where is that grasshopper pizza I ordered?” Let’s just say that I’m telling my husband to bring me food, or not bring me food. If that handsome red guy came by every minute, he might lead a predator right to our nest. Singing to him can cut down on unneeded trips.
A: So your husband brings you food? That sounds like a great system. I wouldn’t say no to breakfast in bed every day.
C: He is quite sweet. But let me tell you, when the babies are demanding food every few minutes, he gets quite a work-out! He only brings me food when I’m nesting in the spring and summer. In the fall and winter I go back to getting my own food.
A: What kind of food does your husband bring back to the nest? You mentioned grasshopper pizza?
C: I was joking, but if you know a joint that makes grasshopper pizza let me know. He brings me seeds, fruit, and berries. My favorite are the sunflower seeds you fill your birdfeeders with. Mm-mm! When we have babies in the nest he’ll bring them lots of insects, like beetles, flies, centipedes, butterflies and crickets. They also like spiders. It must be all those legs.
A: Ugh, that’s an unpleasant image! It seems to me like your husband is doing all the work. I mean he defends the territory and brings home the bacon while you sit on a nest all day.
C: I resent that! Sitting on a nest is not as easy as it looks. I’m protecting my kids from becoming a predator’s snack. And let me tell you, there are lots of animals that love to snack on young birds. It’s a stressful job. The babies in 4 out of every 5 nests don’t survive to adulthood.
A: That’s awful!
C: Yes it is, but we move on and try harder next year. Every spring I go house-hunting with my husband, scoping out good nest sites in tangled vines or bushes. We like to nest close to the ground, but unfortunately that makes it easy for predators to get at the nest.
I work really hard on that nest. Each one is a 4-layered feat of engineering! I bend twigs into a circle, then add a layer of leaves, a layer of grapevine bark and then finish it off with some cozy grass and pine needles. Each nest takes 3-9 days to build! And for the next batch of eggs, I do it all over again. If conditions are good,
I’ll build two nests a year.
A: Okay, so it sounds like you’re working hard too, and work is pretty equally distributed between you and your husband. But there’s something that doesn’t make sense to me. If you’re on the nest all the time, how do predators ever get at your babies?
C: Well, I’m not on the nest every second of the day…
A: I feel like there’s something you’re not telling me. Want to get it off your chest?
C: Okay, fine, I’ll tell you! I’m having an affair with the next door neighbor! He’s just so….red!
A: Okay, that explains it. Does your husband know?
C: I’m sure he suspects it. At any given time a tenth to a third of chicks in my nest are not his, and he can tell. Anyway, he cheats on me too. Everybody does.
A: But you’re still a couple?
C: Yep, we’re completely devoted to each other. I’m the only female he feeds and takes care of. We drift apart in the winter, but usually get back together in the spring. That sweet song of his gets me every time.
A: Do most couples mate for life?
C: Goodness no! About 1 in 5 relationships won’t last the winter.
A: Speaking of winter, how do you like the cold here? I always seem to see you frolicking in the snow.
C: I hate it. I’m not frolicking, I’m desperately trying to stay warm! But we like the neighborhood, and there’s plenty of food here so there’s no point in migrating.
My ancestors were tropical birds who came to Canada from the US in the 1800s. They were following Europeans who were cutting down forests, creating the open bushy spaces that we love. We love living in backyards and parks and forest edges, so our numbers have only been growing as the numbers of humans living here grows.
A: Very interesting! One last question. Why are cardinals red?
C: Because we eat red berries. Duh. Just like flamingos get pink from eating shrimp, we get red from eating berries. Any bird you see that is red, orange or yellow is eating something that colour. We can’t make those pigments by ourselves.
A: Fascinating! Thank you so much. Best of luck with those eggs!
C: Thanks! My pleasure.