10 Crimson Facts About Cardinals
By Mark Mancini
Every year, these crested songbirds add a welcome dash of color to the drab wintery months. Let’s get a little better acquainted with our rosy, non-migratory neighbors.
1. THERE’S MORE THAN ONE SPECIES.
For the remainder of this article, we’ll be focusing on the northern cardinal, the most famous species here in the United States. But the genus to which it belongs, Cardinalis, does contain two lesser-known members: The desert cardinal (also known as pyrrhuloxia), which can be found in Mexico and the American southwest and has a distinctive scarlet and gray coat, and the radiant vermillion cardinal, which can be found in Venezuela and Colombia. There are also several closely related members of the Cardinalidae family, such as buntings, grosbeaks, and dickcissels, which are often referred to as cardinals.
2. THEY’RE NAMED AFTER THE CATHOLIC BISHOPS.
American colonists named the birds cardinals as a nod to the red-gowned religious figures (either directly or after the word cardinal had become a term for a particular shade of red). Over the past 400 years, people have also called them crested redbirds, Virginia nightingales, and—paradoxically—red blue jays. The term cardinal ultimately derives from cardo, a Latin word meaning “hinge.” In Vatican City, several important jobs—like electing Popes—do, in fact, hinge upon the cardinals (hence the name).
3. THEIR COLORING COMES FROM WHAT THEY EAT.
Northern cardinals, like flamingoes, use food—such as grapes or dogwood berries—to keep up appearances. During the digestive process, pigments from the fruit enter the bloodstream and make their way to feather follicles and crystallize. If a cardinal can't find berries to snack on, its hue will gradually start fading.
4. CARDINALS VOLUNTARILY COVER THEMSELVES WITH ANTS.
It's appropriately called anting and over 200 species of bird, from the wild turkey to the Baltimore oriole, do it. Why? Experts aren’t sure. Maybe the formic acids that these insects release help ward off lice. Or perhaps the chemicals make molting easier. At any rate, cardinals go about anting in two different ways: Sometimes, the birds mash up the insects and smear them around like sunscreen. On other occasions, they’ll simply drop live ants into their plumage.
5. SEVEN STATES CALL THE NORTHERN CARDINAL THEIR OFFICIAL BIRD.
Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia all do so, making this species the most popular state bird in America.
6. HUMANS HAVE REALLY HELPED THEM SPREAD.
Once upon a time, the northern cardinal was mainly a southern bird. In the 1880s, people rarely spotted them above the Ohio River. Obviously, this is no longer the case. In 1896, the first northern cardinal was reported in Ontario. By 1910, they’d become common throughout the Canadian province. The rise of suburbs can help explain this trend, since shrubs and small trees—which these neighborhoods have in abundance—are a cardinal’s favorite haunts. On a related note, the avians were deliberately introduced to Hawaii and and became firmly entrenched in southern California during the 1920s.
7. MALES FEED FEMALES AS PART OF THEIR COURTSHIP RITUAL.
Cardinals of the fairer sex use this custom to evaluate potential suitors. Any candidate who can fetch top-quality seeds likely has good foraging skills, a sizable territory, or, ideally, both. When the incubation process starts, a female’s partner bears total responsibility for satisfying her dietary needs—so locating good chow will be a critical part of his job description.
8. COME WINTERTIME, THEY TEND TO CREATE BIG FLOCKS.
In the warmer months, cardinal pairs aggressively defend a plot of land sized between two and 10 acres—so you might think that they get especially territorial in winter, when food gets much scarcer than usual. Instead, cardinal pairs will often join forces in the quest for sustenance. As temperatures drop, temporary flocks consisting of five or more couples band together. Loose confederacies like this also make individual birds less vulnerable to cardinal-eating predators, which are spotted more readily by large groups. At the end of the day, there’s safety in numbers.
9. MANY SUFFER FROM BIRDIE “BALDNESS.”
Naked-headed cardinals don’t make for a pleasant sight. Wild specimens that suffer from a near-total lack of feathers on their heads and necks are documented every year. Many experts blame parasites, though some—like Eastern Kentucky University ornithologist Gary Ritchison—have their doubts. Ritchison has personally handled “thousands” of cardinals, including several baldies. Among those afflicted birds, he says that “None … had severe lice or mite problems.” Alternative explanations include abnormal molting patterns and cranial injuries.
10. A DUAL-SEX CARDINAL WAS PHOTOGRAPHED IN 2011.
In northern cardinals, males and females look noticeably different. The former are a vibrant shade of crimson, the latter a drab gray with a few red highlights on the wings and crest. Imagine, then, the confusion that Larry Ammann must have felt one strange January morning. Perched upon the Texan’s birdfeeder was an eye-catching cardinal whose right side was grey and whose left side was red.
A statistics professor and wildlife photographer, Ammann snapped a few shots of his guest. Intrigued, he decided to conduct a little online research—which is when things got weird. “In just a few hours, I learned … that this bird is an extremely rare bilateral gynandromorphy cardinal,” the statistician said. What does that mean? Basically, Ammann put it, “a genetic mistake occurred during the first cell division of the fertilized ovum, causing one of the cells produced by this division to be male and the other to be female. As this egg developed, the entire right side remained female and the left side remained male.”
Gynandromorphy is more commonly observed in crustaceans and insects. Still, every so often, split-sexed vertebrates turn up. In 2003, for example, a gynandromorph zebra finch made international headlines. Amazingly, biologists learned that the masculine and feminine sides of this animal’s brain behaved in two different ways—but it chirped out exclusively male calls and copulated with a female finch.
All images courtesy of iStock