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November 2009 cover image bicycle riding at Big Bend Ranch State Park

Wild Thing: Crimson Crooner

Cardinals come for the sunflower seeds, they stay all year.

By Sheryl Smith-Rogers

Commonly seen but far from common looking, the male northern cardinal — with its brilliant red plumage, jaunty head crest and black face mask — ranks as one of our best-recognized songbirds.

Cardinalis cardinalis — named for the red robes worn by Roman Catholic cardinals — inhabits the eastern ­two-thirds of Texas. Bird feeders — especially those stocked with black-oil sunflower seeds — have steadily expanded their northern range through the years. While most other songbirds migrate south for the winter, northern cardinals don’t travel far, and even sing year-round, too.

Duets between a mated pair peak in the spring and early summer. During courtship, a male will often alight near his mate, then gently feed her a seed or insect. Come nest time, he’ll continue to feed her. During one season, a cardinal couple may nest up to four times with two to five eggs per clutch. Juveniles resemble their pale brown mother, except their stout beaks are gray, not orange-red.

Beauty aside, the species can be temperamental. Because they’re so devoted to family, northern cardinals will fiercely defend their territory against intruders, real and otherwise. The behavior can be perplexing as well as irritating.

“That’s one of our most common calls,” says Georgina Schwartz, who answers the San Antonio Audubon Society’s information line. “People want to know why a cardinal keeps pecking at their window or a car mirror and what they can do about it. I explain that the bird is seeing its reflection and thinks he or she is fighting off an intruder.”

Schwartz suggests hanging a towel in the window or draping one over a car mirror. “Cardinals can be very persistent,” she adds. “You’d think they’d catch on about their reflection, but they never do.”

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