A pair of northern cardinals braces against a late-winter storm in Franklin County. This year-round Missouri resident is perhaps the most recognizable bird in our state. While the eastern bluebird, another Missouri gem, holds the honor of Missouri’s state bird, the cardinal holds seven official state bird designations, the highest of any bird.
The male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), sometimes referred to as a redbird, is completely awash in an extraordinary shade of red, except for a patch of deep black around the face. Even the bill of the cardinal is red — the finishing touch on a child’s vision of a perfect songbird. A pronounced crest and long tail further enhance the appearance of this stunning species.
The female cardinal is quite arresting as well, her body in soft shades of brown and buff, her wings and tail highlighted with rusty red. She shares the same red bill as the male, and an eye-catching streak of reddish-orange at the tip of her crest. Many bird lovers actually prefer the subtle beauty of the female cardinal over her dazzling counterpart.
Cardinals are a common permanent resident in Missouri, and they don’t migrate far from their birthplace, except to establish new territory as they mature. Cardinals are typically found in woodlands, parks, yards, and brushy areas where they forage on the ground for a variety of insects,seeds, and fruits. Nesting occurs in thickets and shrubs where the female can build a well-hidden nest. We often find cardinals nesting in a rangy rosebush at the corner of our house.
Cardinals produce a variety of songs and calls, most of which are two- to three-part whistles. They also make a loud “chip” that can be heard when two cardinals are communicating or when an individual senses a threat. Rare in the songbird world, the female cardinal sings, often from the nest as she communicates with the male. I find the songs and calls of the cardinal difficult to describe, but if you listen to a recording of cardinals on any birding application, I guarantee you will recognize the calls immediately as those you have heard in your own backyard.
Cardinals are territorial during the breeding season, and they are known for attacking their reflection in windows. When I’m photographing cardinals in spring, my 500 mm lens is not immune to the aggressive nature of males as they spot their reflection in the huge front element. I’ve been known to flinch at the sight of a bright red patch racing toward me out of nowhere.
My favorite time to watch and photograph cardinals is during winter snowstorms when their red plumage falls in dramatic contrast to the white landscape. Every winter our local cardinals flock to a particular eastern red cedar that is always heavy with tiny, berry-like cones. The red cardinals, green branches, blue cones, and white snow all come together for a holiday feeling that always makes me smile.
—Story and photograph by Danny Brown
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