The Cardinal Family

This post is not about Northern Cardinals, it’s about Cardinals.

Wait…what? That was probably your reaction, but it’s true: this post is about Cardinals, not Northern Cardinals.

Let’s backtrack for a moment. What do you think of when someone says the word “cardinal”? You probably think of a handsome bright red male with a black face and red bill or a beautiful reddish-brown female with a red-orange bill. Right?

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Cardinal Pair (Image via fanpop.com)

The cardinal we’re most familiar with is the Northern Cardinal, of which I described above. But what if I told you that the Northern Cardinal is not the only cardinal around?  And that cardinals can have other names, such as Scarlet Tanager or Blue Grosbeak(Now you’re probably completely confused haha)

Many people don’t realized that the term “Cardinal” is used to describe a whole family of birds. The family name is Cardinalidae, which consists of 18 species and 7 genera (in North America that is. Worldwide there are 52 species in 11 genera). This family includes grosbeaks, tanagers, and buntings, as well as the Northern Cardinal which bears the family name and its Southwestern cousin, the Pyrrhuloxia.

As with all families, members of the Cardinal family have similar characteristics. These include:

  • Bright and boldly colored males, females with brown tones
  • Small to medium-sized, with stock bodies and relatively short tails, with males being slightly larger
  • Stout conical bills (finch-like)
  • Being primarily found in woodlands, brushy areas, and hedgrows
  • Primarily feeding on fruits and seeds in the winter and insects and larvae in the summer
  • Building cup-shaped nests in shrubs of trees
  • Musical songs with whistled or warbled phrases, sharp and distinct calls (some females, such as the Northern Cardinal, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Pyrrhuloxia, sing too)

The following Cardinals are found in North America:

  • Genus Piranga: Hepatic Tanager, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Western Tanager, Flame-colored Tanager
  • Genus Pheucticus: Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Black-headed Grosbeak
  • Genus Rhodothraupis: Crimson-collard Grosbeak
  • Genus Cardinalis: Northern Cardinal, Pyrrhuloxia
  • Genus Cyanocompsa: Blue Bunting
  • Genus Passerina: Blue Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, Indigo Bunting, Varied Bunting, Painted Bunting
  • Genus Spiza: Dickcissel

So the next time someone says something like “Hey, did you see a cardinal? “ or “Do you like cardinals?” you can answer back with  “What kind?” (and really confuse them like I did in the beginning of this post). Then you can teach all your friends about the fascinating world of the family Cardinalidae :-).

What’s your favorite member of the Cardinalidae family? Tell me in the comments. (Mine are the Indigo Bunting, Scarlet Tanager, and of course, the beloved Northern Caridnal)

 

Day 4 GBBC 2017 and Total Count!

For the final day of GBBC 2017 I went with Maria, my sister Mary, and my mom to Smithville Park. Last year my mom, sister, and I went to Smithville for the count while the lake was frozen and it was snowing (you can read about our trip last year here). This year it was cool and breezy, but much warmer. Instead of just walking around the lake we took the longer trail into Smith’s Woods.

One of the first birds we spotted was this lovely female Northern Cardinal. We heard chipping coming from the trees and it took us a few minutes to find the source of the sound. She flew over and perched on a nearby tree to allow us to admire her. I think female cardinals are so beautiful.

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Female Cardinal (Image by BirdNation)

Last year Common Mergansers spent part of the winter on Smithville Lake. They are back again this winter. As usual, they were just out of good camera range for me, but they were fun to watch. They were actually sleeping for a bit (Common Mergansers float on the water while sleeping). I’m happy that they returned to Smithville again. They were also a life bird for Maria, making it her second life bird this weekend.

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Carolina Chickadee (Image by BirdNation)

Day 4 Official Count

  • 7 Canada Geese
  • 12 Common Mergansers
  • 4 Black Vultures
  • 7 Turkey Vultures
  • 2 Red-tailed Hawks
  • 1 Red-bellied Woodpecker (male)
  • 2 Downy Woodpeckers (male and female)
  • 1 Hairy Woodpecker (drumming)
  • 2 Blue Jays
  • 2 American Crows
  • 8 Carolina Chickadees
  • 5 Tufted Titmice
  • 1 White-breasted Nuthatch
  • 1 Carolina Wren
  • 3 Northern Cardinals (2 male, 1 female)

It was so fun birding 4 days in a row for the 2017 Great Backyard Bird Count. We won’t know the official results for a few days, but it was a record-setting year for us at BirdNation. These past 4 days Dave, Maria, Mary, my mom, and myself count 45 different species and over 5,000 individual birds! What a weekend!

 

The Magical Duet

“Cheer-cheer-cheer-cheer-cheer!”

“Birdie, birdie, birdie!”

Every morning I hear these songs in the trees outside my bedroom window. And yes, they are songs, not car alarms going off (although it does sound like that!). It’s a Northern Cardinal, singing its little heart out.

Now that spring is back, birds are arriving from their winter homes and getting ready to raise their families. The dawn chorus is assembling again. Dawn chorus is a term that many people use to describe when all the birds sing in the morning. When you hear a singing bird it usually is a male, but that’s not always the case. One of the exception to the  “only-males-sing” idea is the Northern Cardinal. Th female Northern Cardinal also sings.

Northern Cardinals are very vocal songbirds. You can hear cardinals sing all year round, not just during the spring. They have about sixteen different calls and ten different songs.(We will talk about the difference between songs and calls in another post, because that would take a whole post to explain.)

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(Image by Bonnie Taylor Barry via birdnote.org)

While singing a cardinal pair may perform a duet. The male will sing a short song (about 2 to 3 seconds long) and the female will answer back, but at a softer volume. They will go back and forth for a bit with their beautiful duet. The female’s reply, or lack thereof, will determine when a male will bring food to the nest. Sometimes as they are singing they will move closer together and eventually meet up.

I have a very fond memory of a Northern Cardinal duet from a few years ago. It’s from the time before Dave and I became birders. Dave and I have been together for almost eight years now, and although we’ve developed our passion for birding within the past few years, we have always enjoyed going to parks. While in college we would frequently walk in Alcyon Park, which was in a neighboring town. We were looking out over a meadow when we heard a beautiful song.

Cheer, cheer, cheer, cheer!” It was a stunning bright red male Northern Cardinal, singing from a nearby branch. In the distance we heard a faint ‘cheer-cheer-cheer-cheer!”

“Wow, someone is answering back!” We listening closely. The male, with his strong voice sang again. And there was the echo, still faint but seemingly a little closer.

This went on for a few minutes. We continued to listen intently to the lovely duet that was being performed right in front of us. The cardinals seem didn’t realize they had an audience. And after each partner made their reply the song seemed to move closer until suddenly there she was!

The female, with her gorgeous red and olive plumage! She landed right next to him on his perch. What a beautiful pair they made. Listening to this pair serenade each other was such a moving experience for me. I didn’t spend a ton of time in nature growing up, so I was really touched by the Northern Cardinal duet. Little did I know a few years later I would be having all sorts of wonderful bird experiences on a daily basis.

The Northern Cardinal duet at Alcyon Park was about six years ago, but it still feels so real and present as I reminisce on the experience. Those little cardinals captured my heart during that duet. Since that day every time I see a cardinal it is a magical moment for me.

Do you have a magical bird moment? I would love to hear your stories in the comments.