Special features

Species profile: Red wonder, Northern Cardinal

Why the cardinal, a bird Audubon knew from the South, is thriving in winters in the North
By Matt Mendenhall | Published: 11/1/2008

brd-cb1208-500“In richness of plumage, elegance of motion, and strength of song, this species surpasses all its kindred in the United States.”

So wrote John James Audubon about the bird he knew as the Cardinal Grosbeak and we call the Northern Cardinal. He described it as “always welcome, and every where a favourite” – words that are as true today as they were in the 1840s.

The difference between then and now is the bird’s range. In Audubon’s day, it was found from Texas to Florida and north to Cincinnati, Ohio. He also reported cardinals in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, and occasional stragglers in Massachusetts.

Today, cardinals live year-round in the Snow Belt: from central Minnesota and Wisconsin to southern Ontario to Maine. The range also extends to the western reaches of Nebraska and Kansas, and birds are sometimes found into Montana and southern Alberta.

In fact, in the last two years, Christmas Bird Count participants north of Minnesota in Fort Frances and Morson, Ontario, recorded cardinals for the first time.

Moreover, the birds are abundant. The species has been the Great Backyard Bird Count’s most frequently reported bird for five of the last six years. In 2008, participants tallied more than 200,000 cardinals.

The expansion of the cardinal’s range and the sizable population beg the question: Why is the bird so successful?

Adaptability to humans is a factor, but Audubon himself recognized that trait more than 150 years ago. For the bird to have doubled its range – and into far colder regions, no less – there must be more to the story.

Sylvia L. Halkin and Susan U. Linville wrote a profile of the species for the reference work Birds of North America (No. 440). They point to three reasons:

  • The warming climate, which has produced less snow depth and more chances to forage in winter
  • Encroachment by people into forests, increasing cardinal-friendly edge habitats
  • Well-stocked bird feeders in winter

“Warmer temperatures mean less food is needed just to keep warm,” says Halkin, professor of biology at Central Connecticut State University. “Winter feeding stations can compensate for colder temperatures, and edge habitat may contain plants that produce winter food for cardinals, as well as nesting habitat.”

Flocking is important, too. In the non-breeding season, the birds gather in groups of 5-20 or more to find food and to have more eyes watching for predators. In cities and suburbs, large flocks are typically found at feeders that are close to sufficient cover. “At feeding stations,” writes ornithologist Gary Ritchison, “cardinals are typically the first birds to arrive in the morning and the last birds to leave at the end of the day.” During the middle of the day, the birds tend to return to their breeding territories.

Feeders, which are critical to individuals and flocks on cold winter days, also play a role in the big picture. Whether the northern border of the range ever stops moving – and so far, it hasn’t – may be up to birdwatchers. “Given adequate cover and nesting habitat,” says Halkin, “expansion in borderline areas might depend as much on whether people were stocking feeders as on the temperature.”

CARDINAL CAPITAL OF THE WORLD
For the last three years, more cardinals have been counted during the Christmas Bird Count in Millersburg, Ohio, than anywhere else. Last year’s total: 3,045 red birds, a record.

Bruce Glick, the count’s compiler, says cardinals are attracted to the area’s many fencerows and woodlots. But he’s also blessed with about 120 participants, including 25-50 Amish birders.

“They’re out there walking and biking through areas finding birds that would be missed if they were driving,” he says.

And he feels that if he had more counters, the total would be even higher. “There are a lot more birds out there,” he says. “Perhaps twice as many.”

Matt Mendenhall is our associate editor.