Subtle Beauty

It is not only fine feathers that make fine birds.

Aesop

Female Cardinal

Female Northern Cardinal (click photos to enlarge)

Cardinal….Redbird…the names refer to one of our most beautiful backyard birds…and they refer to the male of the species, Cardinalis cardinalis. He is among our most strikingly colorful birds with his scarlet red plumage and crest. His mate is also a comely bird but with a more subtle grace. Adult females are a warm brownish color with reddish highlights in the tail, wings, and crest.

Female Cardinal 2

Female Northern Cardinal – a subtle beauty

I have been sitting out near the garden on several cold mornings recently observing the bird life as it comes and goes to the feeding station. Northern Cardinals are one of the more common visitors. They tend to cling to the feeder for a few moments, gobble a few sunflower seeds, and then flap over to the security of the tangle of grape vines on the fence. Males are more aggressive near the feeders this time of year, but will start feeding females in a couple of months as part of their courtship.

Northern Cardinal female closeup of head profile

A Northern Cardinal beak is adapted for cracking seeds

Northern Cardinals are members of the finch family, Fringillidae. Like many other finches, cardinals have strong beaks adapted for cracking seeds, a primary part of their diet. I am told by friends that regularly band birds that the beak is also adapted for giving a painful bite to careless handlers.

Immature or molting female cardinal

Immature or molting female Northern Cardinal

Immature Northern Cardinals are colored similar to females, but have darker beaks instead of bright orange beaks like the adult female. This bird was photographed in early June last year and appears to be an adult female that is molting. I have some other shots from that same time frame of male cardinals with dark beaks (indicating juvenile birds) and what look like molting male cardinals with orange beaks. References say that Northern Cardinals molt once a year in late summer to early fall so I will leave it to my bird nerd friends to tell me what is going on with this somewhat unkempt bird (is this what the rigors of nesting do to an adult female or is it an early molt?).

Female Cardinal 1

In addition to her beauty, female Northern Cardinals are special for another reason. Only a few female North American songbirds sing, but the female Northern Cardinal does. A mated pair shares song phrases, but the female may sing a longer and slightly more complex song than the male. This so-called countersinging may help to strengthen the bond between a courting pair. But rivals males also countersing, so without seeing the birds involved, it is tough for us to tell whether it is love or the urge to fight that is driving the melody.

Female Cardinal on grape vine

Northern Cardinal perched on grape vine

Take a few moments this holiday season and appreciate the beauty of this often overlooked bird. It will be time well spent.

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