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The northern cardinal: handsome and talented

There are only a few species of wild birds that garner the attention and admiration as those wild birds that are colored red or blue. Think of the scarlet tanager, or the eastern bluebird. Both species are brilliantly plumaged and a joy to observe in nature.

They're revered by many a birder, and what's more, species of birds colored red or blue or have splashes of red or blue mixed in with other coloration, have been named official state birds throughout our country by various state and territory government. Examples include the ring-necked pheasant, American robin, wood duck, and others.

Northern cardinals are no exception. Of all the wild red birds, none are as esteemed as the northern cardinal. Seven states in all have adopted this beautiful and brilliant red bird as their official state bird.

To compare, four states chose bluebirds as official state birds, and of those four, two are mountain bluebirds and two are our own eastern bluebird. And while no state selected the scarlet tanager as its formal state bird, Minnesota has the distinction of once seriously considering the species as its official state bird.

Northern cardinals are medium-sized songbirds that are closely related to scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings, and rose-breasted grosbeaks, to name just a few. There are only three species of the genus Cardinalis that occur in North America, and only the northern cardinal ranges this far north in the northern hemisphere, hence its name, "northern" cardinal. (The other two species of the genus include the desert cardinal and the vermillion cardinal.)

This delightful species of cardinal can be found everywhere east of the Mississippi River, including south from parts of South Dakota to Texas and into Mexico, as well as in portions of New Mexico and Arizona. Additionally, as some northern Minnesotans have come to appreciate, the range of cardinals appear to be moving northward. Cardinals are routinely observed throughout many of the Canadian provinces too.

The cardinal's apparent population expansion, which is possibly connected to gradual trends toward milder winters, is also thought to be related to the popularity of year-round bird feeding. Northern cardinals, as is the case with any bird, are better able to cope with severe winter weather when food is plentiful. The abundance of high quality birdseed will frequently keep many wild birds around, even in the wintertime, including cardinals.

Northern cardinals, about nine inches long, have a wingspan of about 12 inches. Aside from the bright crimson feathers of the male and the characteristic head-crest possessed by both male and female birds, male northern cardinals also display a black face-mask.

The female cardinal, like most other female passerines, is less brilliantly colored. Her plumage is a dull reddish brown and her mask is gray. Both sexes have quite large, conical-shaped bills that are red or orange as adults.

One of the most enjoyable traits of the northern cardinal is the male bird's territorial song. Their songs are distinctive, loud and clear. The rich, whistle-song is also fairly easy to imitate. Often written as "woit, woit, woit, chew-chew-chew" or, another common variant, "pichew, pichew, pichew, tiu-tiu-tiu-tiu-tiu-tiu" are phrases that are imagined with little difficulty, even if the song has never been heard before. And though it's the male cardinal that typically sings from the canopy of his territory, both sexes sing.

For anyone hearing a cardinal sing for the first time, the experience is not likely to be forgotten. It wasn't until the spring of 2003 that I was rewarded with my first fleeting glimpse of a northern cardinal in Minnesota. I spotted the bird in the village of Preston, Minn., a beautiful southeastern town and area that's famed for trout fishing, quaint towns, Amish farms, and rolling hills and country scenery.

And the first cardinal I observed in northern Minnesota was in 2008 at the DNR Forestry office north of Bagley. This bird I first heard singing from a nearby treetop, and then at last saw it fly to another perch to sing from.

Many other folks here in northwestern Minnesota are now observing cardinals. Indeed, I receive periodic reports from people seeing cardinals in Bemidji and Crookston, not to mention that the species has become established in cities such as Park Rapids and Detroit Lakes. And as time marches on, one should expect to see and hear breeding and nesting northern cardinals even further north than they already are.

Cardinal courtship behavior is also notable. As previously mentioned, both male and female birds sing. In addition, the courting cardinals perform bonding rituals that include such interesting behaviors as beak-to-beak feeding while pairs sit perched next to each other on favorite tree limbs, overhead utility lines, and elsewhere.

Male birds search for suitable food items, like seeds and fruits, and feed their mates from his beak to hers. Soon afterward, mating takes place and the female builds a nest — usually in dense shrubs or low in a tree — and lays up to four eggs. Two broods, sometimes more, are regularly raised each summer, with the brood raising responsibilities shared by both parents.

The northern cardinal is a bird of uncommon brilliance, exceptional vocalizations, and interesting habits. Estimated at over 100 million birds globally, probably more, the bright red bird with the loud and pleasing whistled song are as gorgeous and delightful a bird you'll ever meet, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.