Bird of the Month: Northern Cardinal

audubon-logo-wood-duck-square-medium-300x300By Sue Drown

Ah, December – time for sending and receiving those beautiful Christmas cards. So let’s try a quick free association trivia: What do you think of when you imagine a classic Christmas card? Santa? Perhaps. Tree? Likely. How about the Northern Cardinal? Very likely, indeed! It will be there somewhere, on the tree, atop Santa’s hat, in the snow by his feet.

Early colonists named this bird after the red color of Catholic cardinals’ birettas (hats), a reasonable ID for folks who were not ornithologists and had many new birds to sort out. I am happy the name stuck, since the male Northern Cardinal is decidedly red. Stunningly, richly, regally red. Although the female is mostly brown, red adorns her bill, wings, crest, and tail, so she too glows red, though with more reserve. All Cardinals sport a splashy bit of black at the base of their red bills, something their closest relatives, the Pyrrhuloxia, do not. Since these similar species are both found in Arizona, even with overlapping territories, the black surrounding the red bill is a handy field mark.

Northern Cardinal photo by Stephen Wolfe, Creative Commons 2.0.

Cardinals do not migrate. They maintain year-round territories in many habitats throughout the U.S., primarily east of the Mississippi. They don’t mind the cold of winter in northern Wisconsin, proving their qualifications for snowy holiday greeting cards. You can find them in Cottonwood, Sedona, Skull Valley, and even Diamond Valley. They seem to be wise enough to avoid the heat of Phoenix, for the most part. So, why are they so uncommon in Prescott? I can’t say. Perhaps they’re afraid of heights? The good news is that reports of Northern Cardinals in Prescott seem to be on the rise. You can attract them to your winter bird feeder with sunflower seeds.

When scouting for Cardinals, look more in the shrubs and understory rather than the treetops. Cardinals have loud, clear calls and song, often with a cheer, cheer, cheer phrase, also fitting for their Christmas season role. They can be quite difficult to find, especially considering their red plumage, but if you are still, they will work their way out to the edges of the brush to see who’s in their territory.

With their bright color and hearty demeanor, Northern Cardinals are the perfect symbol of warmth and joy against the bare trees and snow of winter. Maybe a Cardinal with a Santa hat for my cards this year?


Visit Prescott Audubon Society at PrescottAudubon.Org. Contact them at Contact@PrescottAudubon.Org.

Sue Drown hopes to spend the holidays with friends, avian and otherwise.


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