Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Cardinal's Song of Spring

Nature brings another proof that spring is easing its way into the southeast . . . a cardinal signing.

This gallant Casanova usually starts his spring mating songs in early February. Although the days remain chilly, he brings thoughts of spring to us through his melodies.

The mate will wait a few days before she commences her musical response. At this time antiphonal singing seems to be "their thing". She begins singing, stops. The suitor then picks up and sings the same song. He then waits for her to sing again and stop before he pitches in. When she changes the song or whistle, so does he. He's courting, you see, and aims to please. Often, they will sing together.

And a gracious wooer he is. Make it a point to listen to the soft and tender musical notes of his whisper song when he serenades his bride in the early spring twilight.

Though not as striking in color as her mate, the female presents a colorful picture in her more subdued clothes of olive and buff browns. Her tail and wings are washed in red, though it is not as brilliant as her mate's.

Both sexes have black faces. The black is wrapped around a large conical-shaped red bill. Both wear a black bow tie.

In the South, the cardinal is one of our best known and best loved back-yard birds. During these chilly days a cardinal winging past your window is like a radiant flying rose, or a ruby that can sing.

If you would like the cardinal to nest on your premises, landscape with thorny shrubs, rose vines, small dense trees and tangles. Give him what he wants and he will pay you handsomely in song for years to come.

In early April a cup of rootlets and grasses is placed in a thorny vine or tangle where usually four greenish-white, heavily speckled eggs are laid. Little pink nestlings are hatched in around 12 days, remaining in the nest for another 10 days or so.

The male is the exemplary father and as soon as the young leave the nest he takes complete charge of them while the female bustles about with a second nest. One birder observed one Cardinal pair building five nests in a single season, and another pair successfully producing four broods. Prolific breeders, these grosbeaks!

In their winter haunts, cardinals often gather into large flocks of 20 to 30 birds.

This red-feathered cavalier is no longer considered strictly a southern bird as he is expanding his range rapidly into the Northern Mississippi Valley and into New England, even into Canada. One reason thought to be responsible for his rapid expansion to the north is increased winter feeding, encouraging him to remain where the grub is.