Counting cardinals

The flamboyant Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, is out of place in generally discreet New England. The female has the good taste to keep her red plumage to a few decorative touches on underwing, tail and crest, and of course that beak:

But the male is full-on gaudy:

They live here all-year round, and in the winter they frequent bird-feeders and bring a touch of fire to the monotone landscape:

How they survive the winter temperatures is beyond me: the night after I took this picture it was -16F, or -27C.

They are middle-sized birds, smaller than a blue jay:

or a red squirrel:

Their beaks are designed for seed-eating:

They are estimated to number around 110 million, so they are not endangered. In fact their population is slightly increasing in the northern part of their range, including Maine, while slightly decreasing in the south. Climate change??

They are socially monogamous during the breeding season, and pairs may even winter over together, but this winter so far I have only a solitary male. You will be delighted to hear that both sexes sing, and mated pairs perform duets to strengthen their bond, including counter-singing where one echoes or repeats what the other has just sung. Not sure whether this would work well for me and my husband. Males also counter-sing when they encounter neighboring males, to announce their territorial claims. This recording is a male and female pair counter-singing. It is unusually long for cardinals.

(Macaulay Library ML 54675. Sylvia Halkin )

PS For a human counterpart of the male cardinal’s color and cocky demeanor I offer you this satirical painting of a different sort of cardinal by the 19th century French painter Vibert. It is aptly entitled “The Preening Peacock”. He, of course, does not have a mate to sing to.

I took the picture from this interesting blog about Vibert, hitherto unknown to me:

6 thoughts on “Counting cardinals”

  1. Lovely photos. We have a great deal of beautiful birds, that love all the bird seed, suet kibbles & suet blocks. Listening to the joyous songs of the Cardinals is so enjoyable…and easily recognizable.


  2. i’m jealous of all the beautiful North American birds you have. In Switzerland we are a bit limited for birds with lovely colours..!


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