The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Cardinal Families are Commonplace
by Ro Wauer

There are as many as 30 "redbirds" in my yard each evening now. These congregations consist of adults, both males and females, and a ragtag assortment of youngsters. The young birds are just beginning to show their sexes, the males with more reddish colors than the yellowish-tan females. But all have the large, red bill typical of cardinals. During most of the day, cardinals appear at my feeders in smaller groups of two to five, but by evening they come in greater numbers, apparently to take advantage of a last-minute snack before settling in for the night. They are able to crack even the large seeds with their heavy bill, including seeds that the smaller less-endowed seedeaters are unable to handle.

Cardinals are well known for their flocking habits. Except when nesting, when they generally maintain a smaller nest territory, they seem to enjoy the company of others. Oftentimes, these groups consist of several family groups, gathering together at a feeding station or other choice site from some distance. They will hop about on the feeders, on the ground, or on adjacent vegetation. This time of year, when the youngsters are still not fully independent, they can be seen begging their parents, or even other adults, for a handout. Researchers have reported that although both parents feed the nestlings, the adult female looses interest soon after the young leave the nest, while the adult male often continues to feed the young for a much longer period. Females sometimes begin a second nest at about this time.

Singing always accompanies the nesting process. Cardinals often begin singing very early each morning, even before dawn, during courtship. In early spring, cardinal songs are oftentimes the earliest of all bird songs. Although the typical cardinal song is easily recognized as a either a "what cheer, what cheer," they often also sing "pretty pretty pretty." But cardinal songs vary geographically throughout their range. The songs possess different syllable types and also are of different duration and complexity, but still possess the same general notes.

Both sexes sing, the male may do so more than the female, and dueting has been recorded on numerous occasions. And there is a difference between the songs. The adult female cardinal whistles a slightly more nasal song than the male, and also shows more variation syllable to syllable, according to a researcher from Columbia University. The same Columbia ornithologist explained that song differences might be due to hormones. She explained that "young male cardinals go through a nasal, wobbly phase as their androgen kicks in. Females sing as if they have a juvenile male song." Another researcher further explained that female cardinals develop their singing potential later. "Males... may face stronger pressure to evolve purer tones, which carry farther, to announce 'no trespassing' or 'seeking mate' to distant cardinals."

Year-round, cardinals are welcome in my yard and in most yards throughout their range. That range extends from the northeastern corner of the United States to the tip of Florida and westward throughout most of Texas and along the Rio Grande to the Big Bend Country and west almost to Arizona. In the drier Southwest, cardinals are found only in riparian areas. They are replaced by the look-alike pyrrhuloxia in the drier Southwestern deserts. And in recent years cardinals have experienced a northward range extension, probably due to global warming and/or increased urbanization that has provided feeders and a welcome mat for such a marvelous creature.


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