Cardinals see red

Northern cardinals feeding together in the snow (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

February 7, 2008:

Spring wants to come early to Pittsburgh but it can’t make up its mind.  Two days ago it was 60oF.  In two more days the temperature will dip to 11oF.

The birds are conflicted about the season too.  In winter, northern cardinals feed peacefully together as pictured here by Marcy Cunkelman, but in spring they get quite aggressive and territorial.

This morning during my walk to work I saw three cardinals – two males and a female – having a dispute in a front yard on Forbes Avenue.  All of them were making loud chip calls and chasing each other in circles.  Perhaps one of the males was trying to lure the lady away.  No more peaceful coexistence for them!

In spring, cardinals literally “see red” when a rival appears on the scene.  During the nesting season they will even attack a mirror, trying to rid the area of that red bird in the glass.

They warm up to courtship with other behaviors too.  If you watch at a bird feeder, you may see the male pick up seeds and feed his lady – a welcome change from his cranky attitude toward her in December.

You might even be lucky enough to see them counter-sing.

In most songbird species only the males can sing, but female cardinals don’t have this limitation.  When the pair counter-sings, they perch in different areas of their territory.  First one sings a phrase, then the other repeats it.  The first sings again and the other repeats again.  The first singer may alter the phrase.  The other repeats the new phrase.

Cardinal pairs may spend a good part of the day counter-singing but you have to see them doing it to know it’s a pair instead of two males claiming nearby territories.

Counter-singing is a beautiful thing to watch.  I have only been lucky enough to see it once.


(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

3 thoughts on “Cardinals see red

  1. I have a cardinal question. This year a pair built a nest in the pine tree right outside my window. I was able to watch the whole process. One day when I came home from school, the little ones had left the nest and were sitting on the branches of the tree. The male was on the ground. When I went to bed, I could only see one of the chicks. The next day, they were gone. They did not have tail feathers yet, but they were pretty big. My questions are…do you think they were old enough to survive outside of the nest and is this typical for the babies to leave the nest before they can fly? Also, should I take the old nest out of the three in hopes that they will build there again? Thank you for your time and information!

  2. Don’t remove the old nest! Cardinals build a new nest for each brood but the presence of an old empty nest serves as a decoy to keep predators away from the new one.

    Were the fledglings old enough to survive? Yes, cardinal nestlings leave the nest before they can fly well. During this early period they hide and are very hard to find, even by scientists who are trying to study them(!). Their parents continue to feed them for about a month after they leave the nest. The fledglings will come out of hiding when they can fly better.

  3. Thanks for the information! I will leave the old nest there. There is another nest right below it completely made of grasses. The cardinal nest was textbook with grapevines and everything. Both nests were being built at the same time. My mom saw a robin working on the second one, but it appears the cardinals claimed the tree. It is good to know that they are probably doing just fine. I saw both the male and female across the road at the edge of the woods. They were both sitting on the branches of fallen trees.

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