Tag Archives: Cardinals

Cardinals don’t always look their best during late summer

Photo Courtesy of Gina Fannin • This female Northern cardinal, with a head devoid of feathers, appeared at a home in Cincinnati, Ohio. Although these strange looking cardinals often surprise people, they are not all that uncommon in late summer.

Gina Fannin wrote about an unusual observation of a follicly challenged Northern cardinal at her home in Cincinnati, Ohio. The bird in question, a female cardinal, had lost most of the feathers on her head. Gina took a photo of the bird, which she sent with her email, in which she asked if I have ever encountered a cardinal with such a problem.

Gina said that she has seen male cardinals suffering from baldness, but never a female. “I’ve lived here 24 years, and this is the first time I’ve seen a bald female,” she wrote in her email.

I replied to Gina by informing her that I’ve heard of these strange instances for many years. Bald-headed cardinals seem to be a summer occurrence. I usually get some emails or calls this time of year about people surprised by visits from “weird bald-headed” cardinals. I first began to get calls and email from readers in the late 1990s about this unusual phenomenon that seems to usually afflict cardinals, although I have also seen blue jays suffering from this same ailment.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This female Northern cardinal, shown with one of her offspring at a feeder in late summer, is exhibiting some problems with her feather molt.

I have studied the opinions of various bird experts, but there doesn’t seem to be consensus about the cause. Some believe the “baldness” is caused by an infestation of mites, which are small relatives of spiders and other arachnids. Others believe that the loss of feathers around the head is a part of a normal molting process. This theory is supported by the fact that cardinals do undergo molting in late summer, usually after the conclusion of the nesting season.

The process of molting removes old feathers, which simply drop from the body as new feathers emerge to take their place. For some reason, some cardinals and jays lose all their head feathers at one time before new feathers are ready to take their place. That’s why the condition is typically observed in the summer months. Both male and female cardinals can be afflicted with “bald” heads. It’s strange that the condition primarily affects these two birds, cardinals and jays, both of which have feather crests. On the other hand, cedar waxwings are also crested birds, but I have never observed or received a report on a “bald-headed” cedar waxwing.

Whatever the cause, a “bald-headed” cardinal is an ugly bird. Without feathers, a cardinal is transformed from a showy favorite among bird enthusiasts to a rather grotesque oddity that could aptly be described as resembling a scavenging vulture. Birds like vultures, however, have heads devoid of feathers for a very important reason: As scavengers, a feathered head would become quickly fouled as the bird reaches into the carcasses of dead animals to feed.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This young Northern cardinal visits a feeder in the Atlanta suburbs.

The cardinals I have seen with “bald” heads have been visiting feeders stocked with sunflower seeds or perhaps a holder offering a suet cake. So, the absence of feathers is not a hygienic adaptation on the part of cardinals and jays similar to the hygienic necessity of bald heads among vultures. The good news is that the condition is temporary. The normal molt for a Northern cardinal takes two or three months. The feathers on the head do emerge eventually, which is probably very fortunate for the afflicted birds. Feathers serve as insulation during cold weather. A “bald-headed” cardinal would probably have difficulty surviving winter cold spells.

We’re all accustomed to seeing cardinals at our feeders, but people who feed birds would probably be surprised by how much food cardinals and other feeder visitors obtain away from our well-stocked offerings. During the summer months, cardinals eat a variety of wild seeds, fruit and insects. Some of the fruit consumed by cardinals include elderberry, dogwood, blackberry and wild grapes. Young cardinals still in the nest (and fledglings for some time after leaving the nest) are fed mostly insects, including crickets, spiders, moths and flies.

To make cardinals comfortable in every season, offer plenty of thick vegetation, such as a hedge or row of shrubs, and consider planting some of the fruit trees and shrubs that will help these beautiful birds supplement their diet.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Northern cardinal with most of her head featherless.

Cardinals seem tailor-made for Christmas season

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The Northern cardinal, a familiar backyard bird in many sections of the United States, is a perfect symbol of the Christmas season.

The shopping days before Christmas are getting fewer, so I hope everyone has had time to find gifts for everyone on their lists. My wish to readers is that everyone gets to enjoy a great holiday that just might also include watching some birds.

Although I hate to see the colorful birds of spring and summer — scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks — depart every fall, the winter season offers some compensation.

Often, when we think of the birds of the winter season, our thoughts focus on some of the less-than-colorful feeder visitors — the brown sparrows and wrens, the black and white chickadees and the drab American goldfinches, so unlike their summer appearance.

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Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A male Northern cardinal lands on a snowy perch. Cardinals are perfect symbols for the Christmas season with their bright red plumage.

There’s one bird, however, that makes an impression in any season. The Northern cardinal, especially the brilliant red male, stands out against a winter backdrop of snow white, deep green or drab gray. On a recent snowy afternoon, I spent some time watching a pair of Northern cardinals from my window. Cardinals are wary birds. They make cautious approaches to feeders, never rushing to the seed in the manner of a Carolina chickadee or tufted titmouse.

The Northern cardinal belongs to a genus of birds known as Cardinalis in the family Cardinalidae. There are only two other species in this genus, and they range across North America and into northern South America. The two relatives are the pyrrhuloxia, or Cardinalis sinuatus, a bird of the southwestern United States, and the Vermilion Cardinal, or phoeniceus, a bird found in Colombia and Venezuela.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The Pyrrhuloxia, or desert cardinal, is a counterpart to the Northern cardinal in the American southwest.

Two other South American birds — red-crested cardinal and yellow-billed cardinal — are more closely related to tanagers than to our familiar Northern cardinal. Both the Northern cardinal and red-crested cardinal have been introduced into the state of Hawaii, so two non-native birds from different parts of the globe are now resident in the Aloha State.

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Photo by Pixabay.com • A red-crested cardinal forages on a sandy beach. This bird has been introduced to such exotic locations as Hawaii.

Over the years, the Northern cardinal has also become associated with the Christmas season. How many Christmas cards have you received this holiday season with a cardinal featured in the artwork? I’d wager that at least a few cards in any assortment of holiday greetings will feature the likeness of a bright red cardinal.

Cardinals, also known by such common names as redbird and Virginia nightingale, are easily recognized backyard birds. I never tire of observing these colorful birds. Cardinals are easily lured to any backyard with plentiful cover to provide a sense of security and a generous buffet of sunflower seed.

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Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A female Northern cardinal lands on a deck railing. Female cardinals are not as brightly colorful as males, but they do have their own subtle beauty.

Cardinals accept a wide variety of food at feeders. Sunflower seed is probably their favorite, but they will also sample cracked corn, peanuts, millet, bakery scraps and even suet. The cardinal is also one of only a few birds that I have noticed will consistently feed on safflower seed.

While we may get the idea that cardinals feed largely on seed, that is a misconception based on our observation of the birds at our feeders. When away from our feeders, cardinals feed on insects and fruit, including the berries of mulberry, holly, pokeberry, elderberry, Russian olive, dogwood and sumac.


There’s no difficulty in identifying a cardinal. The male boasts crimson plumage, a crest, a black face and orange bill. The female, although less colorful, is also crested. Female cardinals are soft brown in color, with varying degrees of a reddish tinge in their feathers, particularly in their wings. Immature cardinals resemble females except young cardinals have dark bills.

Cardinals are a widespread species, ranging westward to the Dakotas and south to the Gulf Coast and Texas. The southeastern United States was once the stronghold of the cardinal population. In the past century, however, cardinals have expanded their range into New England and Canada.

The familiar Northern Cardinal is not the only bird to bear the name cardinal. Others include the yellow cardinal of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, the vermilion cardinal of Colombia and Venezuela, and the red-crested cardinal, a songbird native of South America that has also been introduced to Puerto Rico and Hawaii.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinals will visit feeders stocked with sunflower seeds at any season.

At feeders, cardinals mingle with a variety of other birds. Cardinals are common visitors to backyard feeders. For such a bright bird, the male cardinal can be surprisingly difficult to detect as he hides in the thick brush that conceals his presence. Cardinals are nervous birds, however, and usually betray their presence with easily recognized chip notes. Their preference for dense, tangled habitat is one they share with such birds as brown thrashers, Eastern towhees, Carolina wrens and song sparrows. In general, however, cardinals directly associate only with their own kind. Cardinals will form loose flocks during the winter, but these flocks are never as cohesive as those of such flocking birds as American goldfinches. Cardinals are more often observed in pairs.

It’s not surprising that such a popular bird has also become associated with many trappings of the Christmas season.

“You see cardinals on greeting cards, stationery, paper plates, paper napkins and tablecloths, doormats, light switch plates, candles, candle holders, coffee mugs, plates, glasses, Christmas tree ornaments and lights, bookmarks, mailboxes, Christmas jewelry,” writes June Osborne in her book The Cardinal. “And the list goes on. Cardinals have become an integral part of the way that many people celebrate the holiday season.”

I can be included among such people. My Christmas decorations include an assortment of cardinal figurines and ornaments. There are other birds — doves and penguins for example — associated with the holiday season, but for me the holidays magnify the importance of one of my favorite birds. The cardinal, in its festive red plumage, appears made to order for a symbol of the holiday season.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinals are a favorite for makers of Christmas ornaments.

There’s additional evidence to put forward as testimony to the popularity of the Northern cardinal. It’s the official state bird of seven states: Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Only the Northern mockingbird, which represents five states as official state bird, even comes close to the Northern cardinal in this respect.

Even once the holidays are past, there’s nothing like a glimpse of a Northern cardinal to add some cheer to a bleak winter day. Simply add some black oil sunflower seeds to your feeders to welcome this beautiful bird to your yard.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Northern cardinal visits a feeder on a snowy afternoon.

What’s in a name? Vernacular designations for some birds lack imagination

I took part in a Christmas Bird Count last month. These annual mid-December surveys of bird populations are not quite as exciting as counts held during the spring or fall migration periods each year, but they can produce some interesting results. One exciting post-count activity after taking part in a CBC is getting together to compile the results tallied by the various participating groups and individuals. The results are usually compiled on field checklists for birds of Tennessee. These checklists, which are produced by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Ornithological Society, feature a listing of the common name of every bird species likely to be encountered in the state.

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Photo by USFWS/Robert Burton • An American kestrel in flight shows the aerodynamic design that earned this small falcon the common name of sparrow hawk.

The compiler generally reads out the various names on the checklist, which lists all the local birds, beginning with black-bellied whistling duck and ending with house sparrow, and the spokespersons for the various parties respond as each bird’s name is called with the number of birds seen for each species. Over the years, some of the common names of birds featured on the list have changed, as has the position on the list for some of the species. For instance, the American kestrel and other falcons are no longer listed on the card in a grouping with the other raptors found in the state. This doesn’t make much sense to me. But, as I understand it, the falcons have been re-classified for scientific reasons, changing their relationship with the other birds listed on the checklists.

The falcons are not the only birds demoted from the grouping of raptors. The two native vultures — turkey vulture and black vulture — are now listed with herons and ibises instead of raptors. The falcons are now listed between the groupings of woodpeckers and flycatchers.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Former common name rufous-sided towhee became Eastern towhee, which is far less descriptive of the bird’s appearance.

At least no expert has suggested a name change for any of the falcons. I dislike name changes, especially when we lose a descriptive name for a mundane one. That’s how we got relatively bland names like Eastern towhee instead of rufous-sided towhee and Northern flicker in place of yellow-shafted flicker. In fact, the American kestrel was once known as the sparrow hawk. The merlin and peregrine falcon, larger relatives of the kestrel, were once known as the pigeon hawk and duck hawk, respectively.

Common names are also known as “vernacular” names. Vernacular can be defined as the language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people, which contrasts with the scientific names for species of birds that are usually only recognized by ornithologists or other experts. However, just like dialects, there can be a great deal of variety among common names for the same birds. Many of the common names for some of our favorite birds lack any vivid descriptiveness.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinal seems much less descriptive of this popular bird than such common names as Virginia nightingale and cardinal grosbeak.

For instance, let’s take a look at the Northern cardinal, which has been known by such common names as cardinal bird, cardinal grosbeak, crested redbird, Kentucky cardinal, redbird, Virginia redbird and Virginia nightingale. The first thing that irritates me about the common name of this bird is that there is no Southern cardinal. So, why is this bird the “Northern” cardinal? The only other birds in the Cardinalis genus are the desert cardinal, also known as the pyrrhuloxia, and the vermilion cardinal. Both these relatives have arguably more interesting and descriptive names than their relative, which is a favorite of many birders and arguably better known to many people.

I can understand why Kentucky cardinal and Virginia redbird are not inclusive names since the Northern cardinal ranges far beyond the borders of these two states. On the other hand, cardinal grosbeak with its reference to the cardinal’s large beak, as well as crested redbird, are both more descriptive and creative than the rather nondescript Northern cardinal.

Of course, a literary great summed up the confusing attitude toward common names. “What’s in a name?” William Shakespeare had Juliet ponder. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”800px-Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623

I think The Bard was on to something. Whether we call a cardinal a redbird or a Virginia nightingale, it’s song will sound as sweet to our ears. The appearance of one of these birds on a gloomy day will elevate our mood whether we know the bird as cardinal grosbeak, Kentucky cardinal or, in scientific terminology, Cardinalis cardinalis.

 

BRISTOL HUMMERS DEPART

As promised, here’s an update on the hummingbirds that proved dutiful daily visitors to a sugar water feeder at the Bristol home of Ralph Beamer through Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Early in the new year, Ralph notified me that the hummingbirds departed ahead of 2018’s arrival.

“We had a surprise on New Year’s Day,” Ralph wrote in an email. “The hummingbirds were gone. I am glad they left ahead of the extreme cold we have had the last few days.”

Ralph noted that he had a wonderful time watching them for the past three months. He is hopeful they will come back in the future, but figured that is probably wishful thinking.

Actually, some of these winter hummingbirds, which often turn out to be rufous hummingbirds, have proven quite faithful to favorite locations. Bird banders have recaptured some individual hummingbirds year after year in the same yards. During the stay of his visitors, Ralph shared photographs and videos with me of their visits to his feeders. I enjoyed receiving his periodic updates about them.

I emailed Ralph back and told him that these hummingbirds seem to also have a knack for knowing when to leave and suggested he keep an eye out for them again next fall.

••••••

Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Cardinal has rivals when it comes to depiction on Christmas cards

Although many articles have been penned about the demise of the Christmas card, I still receive plenty of these paper greetings each holiday season. My friends and acquaintances, knowing me well, I suppose, often select cards featuring a variety of birds. Regardless of rising postal costs and hectic schedules during a busy season, the Christmas card appears to be an enduring tradition.

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Photo by Nathan Rathbun/USFWS • An observation of a bright red male Northern cardinal is sure to put some cheer into the holidays.

Many of the cards I have received this year and in past holiday seasons have featured the Northern cardinal, which has long been one of my favorite birds. During the winter months, particularly during the holiday season, the Northern cardinal seems to take on even more significance. Anyone who received many Christmas cards this year will probably confirm that the cardinal often appears on them. The origins of the cardinal’s affiliation with the holiday of Christmas are a bit murky. After all, the Northern cardinal is a North American bird that would have been unknown in Europe until the 1600s, when the first explorers and settlers arrived from Europe.

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Photo by Jeff Keller/National Science Foundation • Chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis antarctica) are also known as the bearded penguin and the ringed penguin. They reach about two feet tall and weigh less than 10 pounds. Chinstraps form strong bonds with their mates and will wait long periods for their mates to return to the breeding ground each year, rather than take a new mate.

The cardinal is hardly the only species of wildlife, let alone bird, that has become closely associated with the holiday. Everything from polar bears and seals to doves and penguins are also popular motifs for designers who craft Christmas cards. In recent years, I’ve even seen other birds — owls, chickadees, and even sandpipers — begin to decorate cards.

Often, when we think of the birds of the winter season, our thoughts focus on some of the less-than-colorful feeder visitors — the brown sparrows and wrens, the black and white chickadees and the drab American goldfinches that are such a contrast in winter to their vibrant summer appearance. The Northern Cardinal, especially the brilliant red male, stands out against a winter backdrop of snow white, deep green or drab gray. Could there be a better bird to brighten a Christmas card?

Well, as it turns out, there are other birds beyond the picture-perfect Northern cardinal that are worthy of gracing the front of Christmas cards. As previously mentioned, penguins are popular featured birds on many a Christmas card. Thanks to major motion pictures like Happy Feet (2006) and Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011), as well as documentaries like 2005’s March of the Penguins, these dapper birds have enjoyed an enhanced profile in recent years and earned a place on our Christmas cards.

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Photo by Kelly Falkner/National Science Foundation • Two emperor penguins greet each other near Ross Island in Antarctica. Emperors are the largest of all penguins, reaching nearly four feet tall.

Of course, there’s not one single “penguin” species. There are about 20 different penguin species, ranging in size from the emperor penguin, which weighs 75 pounds and stands three feet seven inches tall, to the little blue penguin, also whimsically known as the fairy penguin, which weighs 2.2 pounds and stands about 16 inches tall. Other species include the king penguin, yellow-eyed penguin and macaroni penguin.

While at first glance owls are an unlikely species for depiction on a Christmas card, I can understand why people have embraced these nocturnal birds. With their big eyes and a reputation that has improved as we are less likely to embrace superstitious myths, owls are a good choice for gracing the cover of a card. One species — the snowy owl — is a perfect bird to depict the wintry season. With its white plumage, contrasted with varying amounts of black or brown markings on the body and wings, this owl of the Far North is a good symbol for the Christmas season. It’s no surprise at all to find an image of a snowy owl staring with piercing yellow eyes from the front of a Christmas card. Other species of owls that I’ve seen featured on cards include barn owl, great horned owl, Northern saw-whet owl, and burrowing owl.

In real life, the snowy owl is a denizen of the treeless tundra regions of the Arctic. Some winters see these owls staging massive migrations that bring them south of the Canadian border. While they are more likely to spend the winter months in such Canada-bordering states as Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, snowy owls have surprised and delighted birders by winging their way as far south as Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina during some winters.

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Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS • This snowy owl was photographed at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota. Some winters see great numbers of this owl surge out of the tundra to winter south of the Canadian border.

While owls and penguins are definite contenders, I’d wager that the Northern cardinal is the bird most often depicted on Christmas and other greeting cards. As further evidence to explain the popularity of the Northern cardinal, consider that it’s the official state bird of seven states — Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. Only the Northern mockingbird, which represents five states as official state bird, even comes close to the Northern Cardinal in this respect. Being designated an official state bird is also an honor that’s eluded any species of owl, let alone any of the world’s various penguins.

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Snowy owl pair painted by John James Audubon.

Finally, one last thing works in favor of the Northern cardinal. Once the holidays are past, and the Christmas cards are packed away, there’s nothing like a glimpse of a Northern Cardinal to add some cheer to a bleak winter day.

•••••

Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Mike Lucibella/National Science Foundation • An adult Adelie penguin turns its head. The Cape Crozier penguin colony is one of the largest known Adelie penguin colonies in the world, home to roughly half a million birds.

 

Cardinals provide perfect symbol for Christmas holiday

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Male Northern cardinals are among the most showy of North American birds.

Often, when people think of the birds of the winter season, their thoughts focus on some of the less-than-colorful feeder visitors — the brown sparrows and wrens, the black and white chickadees, the drab American goldfinches so unlike their summer appearance of bright yellow and black.

There’s one bird, however, that stands out in any season. The Northern cardinal, especially the brilliant red male, stands out against a winter backdrop of snow white, deep green or drab gray. Over the years, the cardinal has also become associated with the Christmas season. How many Christmas cards have you received this holiday season with a cardinal featured in the artwork? I’d wager that at least a few cards in any assortment of holiday greetings will feature the likeness of a Northern cardinal.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Male Northern cardinals are welcome birds in a bleak winter landscape.

There’s some more evidence to put forward as testimony to the popularity of the Northern Cardinal. It’s the official state bird of seven states: North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Virginia. Only the Northern mockingbird, which represents five states as official state bird, even comes close to the Northern cardinal in this respect.

The Northern cardinal belongs to a genus of birds known as Cardinalis in the family Cardinalidae. There are only two other species in this genus, and they range across North America and into northern South America.

The two relatives are the pyrrhuloxia, or Cardinalis sinuatus, of the southwestern United States, and the Vermilion cardinal, or phoeniceus, a bird found in Colombia and Venezuela. Two other South American birds — red-crested cardinal and yellow-billed cardinal — are more closely related to tanagers than to our familiar Northern cardinal. Both the Northern cardinal and red-crested cardinal have been introduced into the state of Hawaii, so two non-native birds from different parts of the globe are now resident in the Aloha State.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Northern cardinal visits a feeder for a meal of black oil sunflower seeds.

The Northern cardinal is a native and abundant bird. Cardinals are a widespread species, ranging westward to the Dakotas and south to the Gulf Coast and Texas. The southeastern United States was once the stronghold of the cardinal population. In the past century, however, cardinals have expanded their range into New England and Canada.

The cardinal accepts a wide variety of food at feeders. Sunflower seed is probably their favorite, but they will also sample safflower seed, cracked corn, peanuts, millet, bakery scraps and even suet. While we may get the idea that cardinals feed largely on seed, that is a misconception based on our observation of the birds at our feeders. Cardinals away from our feeders eat insects and fruit, including the berries of mulberry, holly, pokeberry, elderberry, Russian olive, dogwood and sumac.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Female cardinals scans the snow’s surface for seeds dropped by other birds.

Even once the holidays are past, there’s nothing like a glimpse of a Northern cardinal to add some cheer to a bleak winter day. People can also choose to further the cause of science by taking part in studies such as Project FeederWatch, a nationwide survey of bird populations focused on birds coming to feeders maintained by project participants.

In the 2015-16 winter season, 1,373 individuals participated in Project FeederWatch in the southeastern United States. The most common birds reported by observers were Northern cardinal, Carolina chickadee, mourning dove, American goldfinch and tufted titmouse. Finishing out the Top 10 feeder birds in this section of the nation were Carolina wren, house finch, blue jay, red-bellied woodpecker and downy woodpecker. Almost 98 percent of participants reported Northern cardinals at their feeders, which means the cardinal has become an almost universal feeder visitor in the southeast.

The roots of Project FeederWatch extend back to 1976 Ontario, Canada, when Dr. Erica Dunn with Canada’s Long Point Bird Observatory established the Ontario Bird Feeder Survey. After a successful 10-year run, its organizers realized that only a continental survey could accurately monitor the large-scale movements of birds. Therefore, Long Point Bird Observatory decided to expand the survey to cover all of North America.

The expansion launched in the winter of 1987-88, when more than 4,000 people enrolled. FeederWatchers represented every state in the U.S. except Hawaii, as well as most Canadian provinces. Project FeederWatch continues to be a cooperative research project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada (formerly the Long Point Bird Observatory) on an annual basis. To learn more, visit http://feederwatch.org/

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of Northern Cardinals.

It’s not surprising that such a popular bird has also become associated with many trappings of the Christmas season.

“You see cardinals on greeting cards, stationery, paper plates, paper napkins and tablecloths, doormats, light switch plates, candles, candle holders, coffee mugs, plates, glasses, Christmas tree ornaments and lights, bookmarks, mailboxes, Christmas jewelry,” writes June Osborne in her book The Cardinal. “And the list goes on. Cardinals have become an integral part of the way that many people celebrate the holiday season.”

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A pair of Northern Cardinals claim perches near a feeder.

I can be included among such people. My Christmas decorations include an assortment of cardinal figurines and ornaments. There are other birds — doves and penguins for example — associated with the holiday season, but for me the holidays magnify the importance of one of my favorite birds. The cardinal, in its festive red plumage, appears made to order for a symbol of the holiday season.

Here’s some additional cardinal trivia to increase your knowledge of this fascinating bird:

• Cardinals are also known by such common names as redbird and Virginia nightingale.

• Cardinals differ in appearance based on gender. The male boasts crimson plumage, a crest, a black face and orange bill. The female, although less colorful, is also crested. Female cardinals are soft brown in color, with varying degrees of a reddish tinge in their feathers, particularly in their wings.

• The cardinal’s preference for dense cover makes them likely neighbors for such birds as Carolina wrens and brown thrashers.

• The oldest recorded Northern Cardinal was a female, and she was 15 years, nine months old when she was found in Pennsylvania, according to the website, All About Birds.

Bald cardinals a temporary late summer phenomenon

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                               A female Northern Cardinal brings a young bird to a feeder.

I received an email recently from Dick Abrams, a resident of Bristol, Tennessee.

“We love our birds and other local critters,”

Dick wrote. “I have a question for you. Why are so many cardinals this year bald headed?”

Dick noted that some of these beloved backyard birds “are bald as buzzards!”

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Many people compare cardinals afflicted with the loss of their head feathers with the look of vultures, such as this painting by John James Audubon of a California Condor.

He concluded his email by asking if anyone else had mentioned the strange phenomenon of bald cardinals.

•••••••

In addition, Gail Adler of Johnson City, Tennessee, sent me a message on Facebook on the same subject of “bald cardinals.”

“I love gardening and birdwatching,” Gail wrote in her message. “I have noticed this summer that many of my cardinals have lost the feathers on their head. Some of my other ones look a little rough, as well. I tried to look up causes but was unable to find a definite reason. Have you experienced this? Any thoughts?”

••••••••

First, I let Dick and Gail know that I’ve heard of these strange instances for many years. Bald-headed cardinals seem to be a summer occurrence. I usually get some emails or calls this time of year about people surprised by visits from “weird bald-headed” cardinals. I first began to get calls and email from readers in the late 1990s about this unusual phenomenon, although I have also seen blue jays suffering from this same ailment.

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A “bald cardinal” featured on the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website.

I have studied the opinions of various bird experts. Some speculate that the condition is caused by an infestation of mites, which are small relatives of spiders and other arachnids. Others believe that the loss of feathers around the head is a part of a normal molting process. This theory is supported by the fact this is the time of year when cardinals are molting.

The process of molting removes old feathers, which simply drop from the body as new feathers emerge to take their place. For some reason, some cardinals and jays lose all their head feathers at one time before new feathers are ready to take their place. That’s why the condition is typically observed in the summer months. Both male and female cardinals can be afflicted with “bald” heads. It’s strange that the condition primarily affects these two birds, cardinals and jays, both with feather crests, while cedar waxwings are also crested birds, but I have never observed or received a report on a “bald-headed” cedar waxwing.

Whatever the cause, a “bald-headed” cardinal is an ugly bird. Without feathers, a cardinal is transformed from a popular favorite among bird enthusiasts to a rather grotesque oddity. Dick got his description right when he described the bird as resembling a buzzard. Buzzards, better known as vultures, have heads bare of feathers for a very important reason. As scavengers, a feathered head would become quickly fouled as the bird reaches into the carcasses of dead animals to feed.

Cardinal_DadAndYoung

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                    A male Northern Cardinal escorts a young bird to the area around a feeder to teach it to fend for itself.

Those cardinals I have seen with “bald” heads have been visiting feeders stocked with sunflower seeds or perhaps a holder offering a suet cake. So, the absence of feathers is not a hygienic adaptation on the part of cardinals and jays similar to the hygienic necessity of bald heads among vultures. The good news is that the condition lasts only a couple of weeks. The feathers on the head do emerge eventually, which is probably very fortunate for the afflicted birds. Feathers serve as insulation during cold weather. A “bald-headed” cardinal would probably not survive winter cold spells.

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We’re all accustomed to seeing cardinals at our feeders. You may be surprised by how much food they obtain away from our well-stocked feeders. During the summer months, cardinals eat a variety of wild seeds, fruit and insects. Some of the fruit consumed by cardinals include elderberry, dogwood, blackberry and wild grapes. Young cardinals still in the nest (and fledglings for some time after leaving the nest) are fed mostly insects, including crickets, spiders, moths and flies.

FemaleCardinal-AndYoung

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                A female Northern Cardinal perches on a log with one of young, which recently left the nest.

To make cardinals comfortable in spring, summer and fall, as well as winter, offer plenty of thick vegetation, such as a hedge or row of shrubs, and consider planting some of the fruit trees and shrubs that will help these beautiful birds supplement their diet.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Cardinal makes a splendid symbol of Christmas season

The shopping days before Christmas are getting fewer, so I hope everyone has had time to find gifts for everyone on their lists. My own sincere wish to readers is that everyone gets to enjoy a great holiday that just might also include watching some birds.

Photo courtesy of Tom and Helen Stetler A male Northern Cardinal takes a bath at the home of Tom and Helen Stetler in Elizabethton.

Photo courtesy of Tom and Helen Stetler
A male Northern Cardinal takes a bath at the home of Tom and Helen Stetler in Elizabethton.

Although I hate to see the colorful birds of spring and summer — scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks — depart every fall, the winter season offers some compensation.

Often, when we think of the birds of the winter season, our thoughts focus on some of the less-than-colorful feeder visitors — the brown sparrows and wrens, the black and white chickadees, the drab American goldfinches so unlike their summer appearance.

There’s one bird, however, that makes an impression in any season. The Northern cardinal, especially the brilliant red male, stands out against a winter backdrop of snow white, deep green or drab gray.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service  Pyrrhuloxia

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The Pyrrhuloxia is a relative of the Northern Cardinal found in the southwestern United States.

The Northern cardinal belongs to a genus of birds known as Cardinalis in the family Cardinalidae. There are only two other species in this genus, and they range across North America and into northern South America. The two relatives are the pyrrhuloxia, or Cardinalis sinuatus, of the southwestern United States, and the Vermilion Cardinal, or phoeniceus, a bird found in Colombia and Venezuela.

Two other South American birds — red-crested cardinal and yellow-billed cardinal — are more closely related to tanagers than to our familiar Northern cardinal. Both the Northern cardinal and red-crested cardinal have been introduced into the state of Hawaii, so two non-native birds from different parts of the globe are now resident in the Aloha State.

Over the years, the Northern cardinal has also become associated with the Christmas season. How many Christmas cards have you received this holiday season with a cardinal featured in the artwork? I’d wager that at least a few cards in any assortment of holiday greetings will feature the likeness of a bright red cardinal.

This sample Christmas card from cardinalchristmascards.com is a good example of the way Christmas cards often depict this beautiful bird.

This sample Christmas card from cardinalchristmascards.com is a good example of the way Christmas cards often depict this beautiful bird.

Cardinals, also known by such common names as redbird and Virginia nightingale, are easily recognized backyard birds. I never tire of observing these colorful birds. Cardinals are easily lured to any backyard with plentiful cover to provide a sense of security and a generous buffet of sunflower seed.

Cardinals accept a wide variety of food at feeders. Sunflower seed is probably their favorite, but they will also sample cracked corn, peanuts, millet, bakery scraps and even suet. The cardinal is also one of only a few birds that I have noticed will consistently feed on safflower seed.

While we may get the idea that cardinals feed largely on seed, that is a misconception based on our observation of the birds at our feeders. When away from our feeders, cardinals feed on insects and fruit, including the berries of mulberry, holly, pokeberry, elderberry, Russian olive, dogwood and sumac.

Photo by Ken Thomas Even the female Northern Cardinal offers observers admirable, subtle beauty.

Photo by Ken Thomas
Even the female Northern Cardinal offers observers admirable, subtle beauty.

There’s no difficulty in identifying a cardinal. The male boasts crimson plumage, a crest, a black face and orange bill. The female, although less colorful, is also crested. Female cardinals are soft brown in color, with varying degrees of a reddish tinge in their feathers, particularly in their wings. Immature cardinals resemble females except young cardinals have dark bills.

Cardinals are a widespread species, ranging westward to the Dakotas and south to the Gulf Coast and Texas. The southeastern United States was once the stronghold of the cardinal population. In the past century, however, cardinals have expanded their range into New England and Canada.

Photo by Jean Potter A pair of Northern Cardinals perch on a feeder for a meal of various seeds.

Photo by Jean Potter
A pair of Northern Cardinals perch on a feeder for a meal of various seeds.

At feeders, cardinals mingle with a variety of other birds. Their preference for dense, tangled habitat is one they share with such birds as brown thrashers, Eastern towhees, Carolina wrens and song sparrows. In general, however, cardinals directly associate only with their own kind. Cardinals will form loose flocks during the winter, but these flocks are never as cohesive as those of such flocking birds as American goldfinches. Cardinals are more often observed in pairs.

Photo by Bryan Stevens Cardinals are common visitors to backyard feeders.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
Cardinals are common visitors to backyard feeders.

For such a bright bird, the male cardinal can be surprisingly difficult to detect as he hides in the thick brush that conceals his presence. Cardinals are nervous birds, however, and usually betray their presence with easily recognized chip notes.

It’s not surprising that such a popular bird has also become associated with many trappings of the Christmas season.
“You see cardinals on greeting cards, stationery, paper plates, paper napkins and tablecloths, doormats, light switch plates, candles, candle holders, coffee mugs, plates, glasses, Christmas tree ornaments and lights, bookmarks, mailboxes, Christmas jewelry,” writes June Osborne in her book The Cardinal. “And the list goes on. Cardinals have become an integral part of the way that many people celebrate the holiday season.”

MaleCardinal-Limb

Photo by Jean Potter                                   Male Cardinals always brighten gloomy winter days.

I can be included among such people. My Christmas decorations include an assortment of cardinal figurines and ornaments. There are other birds — doves and penguins for example — associated with the holiday season, but for me the holidays magnify the importance of one of my favorite birds. The cardinal, in its festive red plumage, appears made to order for a symbol of the holiday season.

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service              A male Northern Cardinal perches on a branch on a snowy winter’s day.

There’s additional evidence to put forward as testimony to the popularity of the Northern cardinal. It’s the official state bird of seven states: Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Only the Northern mockingbird, which represents five states as official state bird, even comes close to the Northern cardinal in this respect.

Even once the holidays are past, there’s nothing like a glimpse of a Northern cardinal to add some cheer to a bleak winter day.

Photo by Jean Potter

Photo by Jean Potter                                                                                                                              This male Northern Cardinal’s red plumage makes him stand out against a snowy background.