The Nature Writers of Texas

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

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Cardinals, Our Christmas Yard Birds
by Ro Wauer

If there would be a requirement to pick one bird to represent the Christmas season, it would undoubtedly be our bright red cardinal. No other bird so well reminds us of the bright red decorations that are so widespread during the period of Christmas. And during the colder days of winter, any yard that contains bird feeders are sure to attract a few of these marvelous songbirds.

However, only the male cardinal is so well marked with brilliant red plumage and a coal-black face. Female cardinals are not nearly as bright as the males, although many of us think the lady cardinals are just as beautiful. They sport grayish-olive upperparts, reddish wings, and only a slightly black face. Both possess a crest that is bright red on males and only slightly reddish on females. And male bills are bright red but pinkish on females. The very similar pyrrhuloxia, a more arid land species found just south of Victoria, has a noticeably yellow bill.

Cardinals are members of the Family Fringillidae, a large family that includes a wide diversity of seed-eaters, including grosbeaks, buntings, sparrows, juncos, and finches. All feed on seeds year-round, although all also take insects, especially when feeding young during their nesting season. This time of year they are most likely to be found in weedy areas and in yards containing seed-feeders. Although all will utilize the smaller seeds, most of the larger species, especially the large-billed birds such as cardinals, seem to prefer larger seeds. Black oil sunflower seeds are a favorite. But goldfinches are most attracted to the tiny thistle seeds.

Of all the Fringillids, cardinals are far and away the best known and most beloved. As a result perhaps, cardinals have acquired a variety of names. Although best known to birders is northern cardinal, they also are known as redbird, big red, cardinal bird, topknot redbird, cardinal grosbeak, and, in Virginia, even Virginia nightingale. The cardinal name comes from the Latin word cardo, meaning "the hinge of a door," referring I suppose to its song, according to June Osborne, in her lovely little book, The Cardinal, published as a gift book by the University of Texas Press. June continues that, "Carollus Linnaeus, the famous eighteenth century Swedish botanist known as the Father of Taxonomy, chose to ascribe the name 'cardinal' to the bird whose plumage matches the radiant color of the papal robes of the church's cardinal. Through the centuries the name has stuck."

Throughout its very extension range, South Texas seems to contain as many or more cardinals than practically anywhere else. June points out that, according to Christmas Bird Counts that are undertaken annually throughout North America, "the densest concentrations of cardinals in winter occur on the Mississippi River, both in the South and further north, and also along the Colorado and Guadalupe rivers in southern Texas. Less dense cardinal populations are found in winter along the Ohio, Arkansas, Brazos, and Red rivers."

But wherever they occur, they seem to be most evident around Christmastime. Perhaps that is when natural foods are most scarce, and they are spending more time at our feeders. But maybe it is because we are spending more time at home enjoying the holidays and are able to appreciate the coming and goings in our yards. The bright red male cardinal will certainly attract our attention!


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