One of our most beloved and common yard birds, the northern cardinal, may not be as aptly named as we think.
Despite its current range from as far north as Maine and west to northern Wisconsin and central Minnesota, cardinals were limited to further south only a couple of centuries ago. Relatively rapid human urbanization of the Midwest to eastern United States has allowed them to flourish in regions where they were once void.
Since cardinals need dense shrubs to nest in, it is no wonder gardens and parks are usually places they can make a living.
Northern cardinals hunt a variety of insects, but most of their diet is seeds and berries. Since they love sunflower seeds, it a suggested sunflower-filled bird feeders may also have facilitated an expansion northward.
Females and males sing. I have heard singing cardinals as early as February. After nesting is complete, singing becomes part of the male’s strategy to defend its mate. Like our state bird, the American goldfinch, nesting can occur pretty late compared to other Iowa nesters. Their breeding period lasts from April well into September.
The male northern cardinal is unmistakable, being largely bright red with a black face. It has a red crest on its head that usually stays up, attenuating further when startled. The bill is thick and redish-orange. The back and flanks can develop a grayish cast in the winter.
Females have red on the tip of the crest, wings and tail. The back and face can be light brown with breast light orange. Females also have a black face and similar bill coloration as the male.
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Although it may be surprising, cardinals are not carbon copies of one another. Males and especially females can have subtle variations in their coloration. Juveniles look similar to females, but have dark bills.
Have you ever seen a cardinal that was completely bald? Although head mites exist that can cause birds to lose head feathers, cardinals often molt all the feathers on their head simultaneously. This gives them an appearance akin to a turkey vulture.
Yard birds can be relatively easy to photograph.
However, most times they are perching on human-made materials, such as metal and plastic. You may need to get creative, affixing a nice moss-covered log or lichen-covered stick near feeders can be a great perch for birds waiting their turn. The natural beauty of the stick or log gives an aesthetic appeal to the shot. In fact, many professional photographers do this, placing a nicely adorned stick near feeders to get that completely natural look to their bird photos.
OTHER BIRDS TO LOOK OUT FOR IN JANUARY
— Keep an eye out for finches at the feeders, such as American goldfinch, pine siskin and purple finch. If really lucky, you might get a wandering common redpoll.
— By now red-tailed hawk numbers have increased significantly throughout the state. Keep an eye out for hawks perched on the tops of utility poles.
— Look for Lapland longspur, horned lark and snow bunting mixed flocks over agricultural fields.
JANUARY BIRDING CALENDAR
— Jan. 5 — Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge Christmas Bird County. Contact compiler by Jan 2. to register. A free lunch will be provided by Friends of Neal Smith NWR to all who register. Compiler is Karen Viste-Sparkman, (515) 994-3400.
— Jan. 6 — From 8:30 to 10:30 a.m., Iowa City Bird Club will hold its feeder watch and social. Join Ken and Mary Lowder at their home, three miles north of Iowa City, off Newport Road at 4364 Treefarm Lane N.E. Get together with other birders in a lovely woodland setting in the country, watch winter birds at a variety of feeding stations ... and eat. Please bring a light snack to share. Coffee is provided. Some parking available, but carpooling encouraged. To carpool, meet Linda Quinn at 8 a.m. in the Hy-Vee parking lot, 1124 N Dodge St. Ct. In case of inclement weather, event may be canceled.
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l Brandon Caswell has undergraduate degrees in biology, anthropology and geology. His graduate degree centered on dating continental collisions within the Precambrian Canada Shield. Bird-watching and nature photography are among his favorite hobbies. He resides with his wife and son in Marion. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with birding-related questions, including questions about activities.