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  • Writer's pictureBetty Girardeau

A Splash of Red Against A Wintry Backdrop

While I enjoy watching all kinds of birds, there is something special about male Cardinals, especially in the winter when so many of the days are dark and gloomy. It's hard to believe that these birds are known to be shy. Certainly the ones that I have seen around my feeders don't seem to be. In fact, they appear to have no problem sharing the space with others like finches and nuthatches. But I will admit that they seldom tarry at the feeder. It often seems like they have a "get it and go" approach when they come to visit. While I have always loved seeing these gorgeously red birds, I will admit I did not know that much about them until recently. Did you know that they are omnivores, for example? That means that they eat both plants and "animals." I think that it is kind of stretching it a bit to use the word animals, though, because that word in relation to Cardinals means insects. Believing that the birds were likely here long before the Church Cardinals were, I thought maybe the Church ones were named after the birds. But, no, actually it is the other way around. The birds were named Cardinals because their color resembles that of the ecclesiastical robes. One unusual fact about these birds is that they often cover themselves with ants. This appears to be done because ants produce formic acid which is a defense against lice. It has been said about these birds, too, that they mate for life. This isn't exactly true, though. The pair which has bonded will stay together for a season, but may find a new mate the following year. However, during the breeding season together the couple shares the responsibilities of nest building, incubating the eggs and feeding. They like to sing to each other, too, and have been heard singing something akin to duets. But typically, the male sings to protect the breeding and nesting area, while the female sings to let her mate know that she needs food to be brought to the nestlings. While it is not unusual see Cardinals in flocks during the winter months, they are actually territorial at other times of the year, defending their nesting area, which can be anywhere from two to ten acres in size. Their life span is approximately fifteen years. And it is especially nice for those of us that live in areas where winter days can often be long, dark, and gloomy, they don't migrate. So as we see them at or under our feeders or off on the branch of a nearby tree, they give us a sense of joy and well-being. It is little wonder that they are the state bird of seven US states and the mascots of many professional and school sports teams. And finally, for many they are seen as spiritual messengers from God. I am so thankful that the woods below my house harbor so many of them.

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