2018-04-07 / Opinions

Nature Notes

Northern Cardinals Are a Bright Spot During Island Winter
By Patricia Martin

Here we are in April. Last week the temperature seemed to be on the rise and the calendar said that it was spring. Hawks, eagles, turkey vultures, and other acceptors and raptors have been winging their way north. Even though there was a bit of snow in the lower part of my garden, in the upper part the greens of day lilies were starting to appear, and even some snowdrops were beginning to bloom. And then it snowed Saturday, March 31, and it’s snowing again today, Wednesday, April 4. Ah, welcome to April in northern Michigan.

This has been a challenging winter with the weather going back and forth, snow and cold, and then warmer and melting, and then freezing, the short ice bridge, and then boats, then no boats and no planes, and then limited boats. Overall, it has been a difficult winter.

One bright spot this season has been a pair of northern cardinals that visit my bird feeders with great regularity (along with nuthatches, woodpeckers, and chickadees, not to mention the squirrels). Most people in North America are familiar with these birds, which are common year-around residents in the eastern United States and Canada. They are often pictured on Christmas cards and calendars. They are the state bird of seven U.S. states, and are the most commonly used bird for the names of athletic teams. Their distinctive coloring makes them easy to spot. Cardinals are just a bit smaller than the robin, about 8.3 to 9.1 inches long, with a wingspan of about a foot. The males are bright red overall with a pointed crest and a black “mask” and throat. Their bills are red and conical. It is the red plumage that gives them their name, their color resembling the red robes of Roman Catholic priests. The females are shaped like the males, but are brown buff to olive buff overall with a reddish bill, crest, wings, and tail.

It is this time of year, late winter and early spring, that we begin to hear the wonderful singing of the cardinal. The song of the northern cardinal is a variable series of clear, bubbly whistles notes that some say sound like “What cheer! what cheer! what cheer! birdie-birdie-birdie what cheer!,” which is a common song, but they have quite a collection of tune variations with apparently a variety of meanings. Birds differ greatly from humans in that their voice boxes can produce two sounds at a time (a human voice box can only produce one). Birds have a syrinx (instead of a larynx), which is a paired structure that is located where the bronchial tubes, which originate in each lung, come together. Both sides of the syrinx are equally capable of producing sounds so that they can produce two different notes simultaneously and complete broad sweeping changes in pitch very quickly. Generally the left side of the syrinx produces a lower pitch and the right side the higher pitch. This is why birds can produce such beautiful and varied song. It’s like one singer producing a two-part harmony, live and in person. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

For male cardinals in the early spring, their singing establishes their territory. The females will sing after the male establishes his territory, but before they nest. Northern cardinals mate for life, so the selection of a mate is a pretty important choice, and the difference in quality of the singing, which may not be noticeable to human ears, influences the selection of mates. So if you can’t sing a good lick, you may not get the best spouse. Songs are apparently very important in bond pairing. Most of us think we are hearing the males sing, but females sing quite often, as well, and their songs are sexually dimorphic (meaning males and females sing differently), but the differentiation is difficult, if not impossible, for our ears to detect.

In addition to singing, male cardinals put on a bit of a display in trying to attract the female. The males stand upright with their head and chest facing the sky, showing off their brightly colored plumage. They smooth their feathers and then fan out their tail. Then finally, the male shifts his weight from side to side, moving one leg and then another. The female seems to respond in kind and then they begin to sing softly to one another. In part of the courtship, the male feeds seeds to the female. Not a bad date, it includes dancing, singing, and eating.

The territory that these birds like is usually brushy thickets and shrubby tangles along forest and woodland edges. The nests that they build are cup-shaped in dense shrubs, thickets, vine tangles, or low in a coniferous tree. On the Island I most often hear and see them in and around the cedar trees along the East Bluff and along the hillside. The female builds the nest of twigs, bark, weeds, and leaves and lines it with hair and fine grass. Although the female does the construction, the male brings much of the material to the nesting site. The female lays three or four blue/green whitish eggs that take about two weeks to hatch. The female is known to sing while on the nest. It is believed that she uses the song to inform her partner whether or not she and the young need food.

For adults, seeds make up to 90% of the cardinal’s diet, but insects are fed, especially to the young. They also eat berries and fruits. They glean most of their food from low shrubs or while hopping along the ground. It is not uncommon for a mated pair to produce several clutches in a breeding season. The male then takes care of the first brood while the second clutch is being incubated by the female.

In the late summer and early fall, some of the eastern northern cardinals tend to move northeast to north, and in general the populations seem to be expanding their range northward. In some of the references, year-around habitation of the northern cardinal is limited to the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, but I know they are seen in the Eastern Upper Peninsula. In the winter they may form flocks of 60 to 70 birds, yet all through the year the male and female mated pair stay in close contact, singing to one another through the seasons with soft, bubbly whistles.

Trish Martin is a year-around resident of Mackinac Island, has earned a master’s degree in botany from Central Michigan University, and owns Bogan Lane Inn.

Return to top

Click here for digital edition
2018-04-07 digital edition