Florida in Focus: Northern Cardinal

The Northern Cardinal

The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is perhaps a familiar songbird bird to North Americans. But to me it was fascinating. The males are for one, bright red! With a range from Southern Canada to Mexico with generalist habitat requirements from backyards to swamps. The diet of the species is mainly granivorous ; feeding on nuts and seeds of plants for the most part, but it has also been observed to eat insects and fruit as well.

Male Northern Cardinal showing there stunning plumage

My interest in Northern Cardinals started from one of the Bangor Students keen eyes in spotting female Northern Cardinals from the minivan as we passed through Florida. This feat is all the more impressive considering the females are dusky colours and blend into trees and shrubs. Therefore it became something of a running game to try and spot the showboating male considering the unusual success of only seeing females.

This changed at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, on the trail I stopped for shade at what was known as the plume hunters camp. A clearing dating back to times when birds were hunted to satisfy the needs of Milliners and the nouveau riche of American boom-towns. Today though it provided a sunshade looking out over a small clearing with Slash Pines (Pinus elliottii). I heard a repeated call and scanned the clearing. There on a prominent bough of Slash Pine sat a fiery red bird singing its heart out. A male Cardinal at last!

At Florida Gulf Coast University we heard how the Northern Cardinal can prize open bird bands with its strong beak, therefore extra care is required when banding these crafty customers.

Information board at Corkscrew Swamp detailing the "Crimes of Fashion" that used to threaten birds.

Information board at Corkscrew Swamp detailing the “Crimes of Fashion” that used to threaten birds.

As I sat observing the birds a local birder confirmed some of my thoughts; the male is monogamous and remains near the female and they share a two part call which is highly variable due to the range of Cardinals. The pair I saw exchanged 6 note calls *pu-weep, weep x6* . The male of the pair kept returning to prominent boughs of Slash Pine and I hypothesise that this flamboyant display was a mating call and response to strengthen the bond between the pair.This is plausible as Northern Cardinals have been observed to bring each other food to strengthen the bonds between mating pairs.

Luckily for admirers of this bright bird; and as the State Bird for seven States, more than any other, there looks to be a bright future for this flamboyant character. With an estimated habitat area of 5,800,000 kmsq and a stable population of as many as 100 million, it makes the Northern Cardinal of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

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