The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 10, 2006


Biodiversity Corner: Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal (Photo Tom Brownrigg)

With Valentine's Day almost upon us, I felt that something red would be appropriate and if it sang sweet songs it would be even better.

Roses are red
And cardinals too
I need a topic
I think this will do.

Name: The Northern Cardinal has the scientific name Cardinalis cardinalis and it is a member of the family Cardinalidae along with grosbeaks and buntings.

When and where seen: A pair of cardinals visits my bird feeder daily. They almost always approach as a pair. While one is at the feeder, the other waits in the bushes nearby. Thirty-eight cardinals were spotted in town this year during the Christmas Bird Count. Cardinals used to be rare here but they have expanded their range into the Northeast in part because people provide winter feed. The first documented pair of nesting cardinals in Massachusetts was recorded in 1958. See the chart, courtesy of Ken Harte, for 33 years of Carlisle cardinal counts. In general, cardinals like woodland edges, swamps and streamside thickets. They are quite happy in residential areas with bushes and shrubs and a source of food.

Distinguishing characteristics: Images of cardinals are so widely used that even people who have never seen a live one are familiar with the color, the crest, and the stout conical beak with its square black surround. Just as we use plumage color to identify birds, so also do the birds themselves use it as a form of passive communication of age and gender. The bill color conveys age, and the feather color conveys gender. Red feathers and black bill indicate an immature male — at least among cardinals. Red feathers and red or orange bill immediately indicate a mature male in the territory. In a bird-brained kind of way I liken it to the role of sports team uniforms. For example, last Sunday with just a glance it was easy to tell the tight yellow-panted species from the tight blue-panted species.

Song: Cardinals, once mated, are monogamous so the song is often more about declaring territory than impressing a mate. "This land is NOT your land — this land is MY land." Males will often whistle loud and clear from high in a tree. Females also sing, usually after the males have established the territory and before nesting. Southern species have a different song from those in the East. My sources said nothing about the speed of delivery.

Nesting: Cardinals build cup-shaped nests open to the sky. They have multiple broods, sometimes as many as four in a year. Last year a pair nested in the rhododendron beside my house. I watched the progress of the three hatchlings from the kitchen window. Most of the time they huddled in the bottom of the nest but as soon as a parent arrived with food, three gaping holes on the end of featherless necks would erupt out of the nest. Usually two of the three would be rewarded. Both parents fed the hatchlings. All three fledged on August 25.

References: David Allen Sibley, The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior; Cornell University Lab of Ornithology at

Authorship of the Biodiversity Corner is open to anyone at all. Ideas for topics are also welcome. The only requirements are that the subject exists in the wild and was seen in Carlisle. Send a message to Kay Fairweather at

2006 The Carlisle Mosquito