It took me a long time to figure out why my grandmother, who grew up in Hartford, Connecticut in the 1910s and ‘20s, liked cardinals so much, because I took them for granted. My childhood was spent on the north shore of Long Island and the lower Hudson Valley in the 1960s and ‘70s, and cardinals were extremely commonplace. My grandmother’s excitement over the arrival of a male cardinal at her feeder in West Springfield, Massachusetts was a bit of a mystery to me. Her fandom extended to owning cardinal sweatshirts, cardinal Christmas ornaments, cardinal coffee mugs, and… well, you get the picture.
Upon moving to New Hampshire a couple of years ago, I was surprised to find a similar attitude here among younger people (my late grandmother would be over a century old now). According to the “Atlas of Breeding Birds of New Hampshire,” which was published in 1994, the cardinal is a “recent immigrant” to the state “and first occurred regularly in New Hampshire after the late 1950s. The first reports were, tellingly, in the Connecticut River Valley. While my grandmother saw them two states south in the 1920s, by 1931 single birds were showing up as far north as Bath, New Hampshire in 1931, Monroe (near Littleton) in 1949, and in Walpole in 1956. However, after 1957 there was a “cardinal invasion” of southern Vermont and New Hampshire.
Arthur Cleveland Bent published a 21-volume work called “Life Histories of North American Birds” between 1919 and 1968 (it was completed posthumously). I can still remember the impressive row of these books on the shelves of the science library at college. I would occasionally take one off the shelf at random and begin to read for pleasure. The quantity of data was extraordinary. He documented the northward expansion of the cardinal’s range; by 1910 it reached north of the Ohio River and the region where I grew up, the lower Hudson Valley. E.H. Forbush, in his “Birds of Massachusetts and other New England States” (1929) reported the cardinal was still rare in New England in the 1920s (hence my grandmother’s nostalgic excitement) and that many of the early sightings were probably escaped caged birds. The Lacey Act of 1900 outlawed trade of native animals, but violations were routine for decades. (The story of the house finch’s introduction to the east coast in the 1940s is one for another column.)
The New Hampshire atlas notes that the migration into the state came up the Connecticut and Merrimack valleys and then spread from those lowlands. Cardinals are not birds of the forest; they are a classic “edge” species that prefers being in places of mixed open area and woodlot. As such, they are strongly associated with settled places, which may be part of their appeal. Their northward spread is often attributed to growth in the popularity of winter bird feeding. They don’t migrate, but they may move a considerable distance in the winter in order to be near a reliable feeding station.
In addition to a former rarity that still lives in the memory of older living persons, cardinals have several other charming endowments. The most obvious is that the males are almost entirely red; even their beaks and legs are tinged with the color. The females are also uncommonly attractive, with their fawn-brown plumage suffused with blushes of red on the crest, wings, and tail; each individual bird is slightly different in the distribution and intensity of the flush. The black mask of the male, which extends around the eyes and below the bill is striking contrast with the rest of the body. Only the scarlet tanager rivals the cardinal in this bold patterning.
And there is something rather rakish about a crested bird. In jays a crest seems to jibe with their aggressive swagger. In titmice it makes them seem pert (compared to chickadees). But in cardinals it conveys a certain classiness, as if to say, “I’m entirely red, and I’ve got a fancy hat too.”
The cardinal is also a first-rate singer. Its voice is loud and the song is varied, both among birds and within an individual’s repertoire. David Sibley describes it as “a series of high, clear, sharp, mostly slurred whistles,” which he renders as “woit woit woit chew chew chew chew” or “pichew, pichew tiw tiw tiw tiw tiw.” They also have two different calls. One suggests alertness or alarm: “tik”! The other seems to be more for communication between the male and female and is a soft reflective “twik.”
Unusually, both the male and female birds sing, sometimes to each other during courtship. It is uncommon, but not unknown, for female birds to sing. For example, female European robins sing (but not female American robins). However, it is quite uncommon for the female to sing as well as the male does.
Finally, the relationship between the male and female cardinal is charming, as they come across as devoted to one another. For one thing, you almost always see them together through the winter, especially at feeding stations. Many birds fall into loose flocks after the breeding season is over, and other species remain in family units, with juveniles following the parents around into the fall or winter. The next generation of cardinals, in contrast, seem to go off on their own in short order, leaving the older birds to lead an apparently companionable and fulfilling “empty nest” life.
Bill Chaisson, who has been a birdwatcher since age 11, is a former editor of the Eagle Times. He now works for the Town of Wilmot and lives in Sutton.