The question begs finding out, right? As one might guess, it does have to do with getting a mate. The flamboyant birds generally score the females. At least that is what science always thought.
What they are finding is that urban cardinals don’t have to be the brightest red! Any guesses why? It is because of the ready food sources in a male’s territory from our backyard feeders. These birds have rich and ready chow. They can be a bit lazy in putting on that red coat.
Did you ever listen to a male cardinal singing? They are loud and that is another way they get the best mates. I read a study on grasshoppers (post) a while back that said city grasshoppers are louder than their country counterparts, which they need be to project over the surrounding city clamor. So I surmised that city Cardinals might be louder than country Cardinals. And I was right as I looked to Cornell to find it was true. Yep, Cardinals sing their hearts out in the city.
So why bright red? Well, some studies have noted brighter males have a higher reproduction rate, maintain better territories and are better bird dads in parental care. The redness comes from what they eat in carotenoid-rich food of fruit and berries. Things like Dogwood, rose hips, grapes, apples and raspberries. But being a dazzling dude does have a drawback. He could easily catch the eye of a hungry hawk and become dinner. So to eat your way to red or not, that is the question.
Cardinals undergo an annual molt in late summer and fall at which time males acquire their plumage coloration for the following year. So they have to get the coloring right each year. Young cardinals may be less efficient foragers resulting in a duller red color.
Picking a mate based on redness, females have encouraged the males to evolve the bright coloring.
I guess it is the girls that want arm (whoops, wing) candy.
Did you know cardinals have a low success rate of producing young? 40% of nests fledge just one bird. So why are there so many cardinals then?
Since they don’t migrate, there is less stress and loss of life from this exasperating activity. Also, they have a really long nesting season, with nest-building starting in late February and continuing to nest well into late August and September.
Did you want to know something really unique about cardinals? Both sexes sing. And the females will sing with their mate. One thing I can not be sure of is whether they mate for life. Possibly they do, that is if one of the pair lives to the next year. Often at the feeder I will see them in pairs, even in winter when they are likely part of a larger flock.
They are not picky on where they nest either, selecting from a variety of suitable sources in trees, shrubs and vines. They find nest sites even in deserts according to Cornell’s All About Birds, but more likely places are woodlands, shrubby bramble sites and home backyards of city and suburb.
One thing I found perplexing, they build nests to 15 feet off the ground. You would think higher is better.
Do you know any cool things about Cardinals? There is much more I observed or learned on these fascinating, animated little songbirds. What have you observed?
I took some of these images on the first day The Backyard Bird Count, but when you get so many birds in a garden, how does one know they are not counting the same birds over and over? I just made a quick count for one minute.