Vocal and social, cardinals are at home on Martha’s Vineyard

Though they are hard to miss visually, cardinals are very clever about hiding their nests. — Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

It’s true that even drab birds are interesting. Sparrows, flycatchers, and the like have fascinating behavior and life histories, and they reward careful observation. But let’s face it: bright colors give a bird extra appeal. So it’s no surprise that one of the most familiar and popular of our songbirds is the northern cardinal.

The bright red males of this species are unmistakable (even the robust beak is orange). They’re equipped with a black mask on the face and a dramatic crest on their heads, which stands erect when the bird is excited or agitated. Female cardinals are a bit less striking; much of the male’s red is replaced by gray or grayish green. But even females are eye-catching and a cinch to identify.

While these birds are firmly established here — indeed, quite abundant in their favorite habitats — it’s noteworthy that the cardinal is a relatively recent addition to the bird life of the Vineyard, and that of southern New England generally. Older ornithological accounts consider the cardinal a bird of the South and especially the Southeast (the range of the species extends west into Arizona). But by the early 20th century, observers were noting a gradual northward expansion in the cardinal’s distribution, first up the Mississippi River watershed, then north along the East Coast.

By the middle of the 20th century, cardinals were turning up quite regularly in the Bay State, and the state’s first confirmed nesting record for this bird occurred around 1960. Today, cardinals range north throughout New England (though, to the north, they’re confined to lower elevations), and up into the Maritime Provinces. Especially because it frequents settled areas, the cardinal is now so familiar that most people can’t imagine a time when this bird was absent.

The expansion of cardinals north to the Vineyard’s latitude was a slow process, largely because the species is essentially non-migratory. Many cardinals spend their entire lives within a short distance of where they hatched, and records of banded cardinals moving more than a hundred miles or so are rare enough to be notable. Yet there is a tendency for cardinals (young ones especially) to disperse from their breeding territories in late summer and fall, and, oddly, dispersing birds tend to move north rather than south. A number of factors — a warming climate, gradual regrowth of dense cover on a landscape of abandoned farms, and especially an increase in the human habit of putting seed out for birds — gradually increased the odds that birds on the northern fringe of the cardinal’s range could survive the winter. And so, slowly but steadily, the species marched north.

Especially in the northern part of its range, the cardinal remains very much a bird of towns and neighborhoods; on the Vineyard, the species is scarce (though not absent) in expanses of natural habitat. But in settled areas, cardinals are numerous, and their habit of forming small flocks in winter makes them seem even more abundant. Cardinals are much less gregarious during the nesting season; in fact, they’re aggressively territorial, mating for life and then defending the area they’ve chosen against all comers. But the odds are good that a pair of cardinals nests within a short distance of your house.

Highly vocal except for a period in the late fall and early winter, cardinals are obvious even if their bright plumage isn’t in sight. The song (which, oddly for a songbird, is given by both males and females) consists of loud, clear, whistled notes: “Peter! Peter!” or “Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!” Like clockwork, the species starts singing around mid-February on the Island, and each day, it is one of the earliest birds to get started in the morning. Males often choose tree tops or other prominent spots to sing from, making them hard to miss.

For all their vigor and conspicuousness, though, cardinals are remarkably secretive about their nests, which are generally built in shrubs or vines within a few feet of the ground. Most of the species that nest near my house reveal at least the approximate location of their nests by making frequent trips in to feed their young. But cardinals approach their nests with great care, and while they always raise young in our yard, I never have a clear idea of where, exactly, their nest might be. This habit must surely be a secret of their success in suburbanized areas, since it helps hide eggs and young from roaming house cats.

A cardinal’s massive bill is adapted for crushing seeds, and a flock of these birds can empty a bird feeder of sunflower seeds in record time. But especially when feeding young, cardinals eat large quantities of insects as well, especially beetles. This bird, then, is a useful one to have around, helping keep insect populations in check.

Colorful, talkative, and comfortable around human activity, this bird surely deserves its popularity. We’re fortunate to have benefited from the success of this species.