The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is often used as an illustration on Christmas cards or on winter themed decorations. The bright red male, with his black mask, sturdy red beak, crest, and long tail, is usually shown against a background of snow or perched in an evergreen. On occasion the brownish, more somberly plumaged female also makes an appearance. The demeanor of these subject Northern Cardinals ranges from bravely, almost cheerfully, braving the cold on a bright sunny day to hunched up, enduring a snow storm, and looking a tad miserable.
The cardinal motif is not just popular in North America but can be found in Europe too, although the Northern Cardinal is not resident in European countries.
The association of Northern Cardinals with winter in the public imagination has more to do with the cardinal’s ready use of bird feeders – where sunflower seeds are a favourite – than with their habitat preference. The core range of the Northern Cardinal is actually the south eastern United States and their closest relatives can be found in Central and South America.
While the Northern Cardinal is now a part of the avifauna of Ontario this has not always been the case. The species is non-migratory – meaning it remains year-round in a geographical area – but the population has been undergoing an expansion northwards and westwards for many years.
The Northern Cardinal reached the Great Lakes region in 1895. The first Ontario record occurred in London in 1896. They were considered rare until 1910 but became a common observation by 1914. During the winter of 1938/39 there was a massive invasion of Northern Cardinals into much of southern Ontario and it is thought this incursion established them in the province.
In Ontario the Northern Cardinal is common south of a line from Georgian Bay to Ottawa but can be observed regularly in areas north of this line. It is likely that warming temperatures will further facilitate the Northern Cardinal’s northward expansion.
At Ruthven Park the “cheer cheer cheer purty purty purty” call of the Northern Cardinal can be heard in all areas. They can be found in pairs or small groups in the thickets and dense cover along woodland edges and at the various feeder stations.
Their diet is varied. They eat various seeds and grains, fruits, and some insects. There is no truth to the rumour they feed solely on the fingers of bird banders.
If they survive their first year the Northern Cardinal can live for 4 or 5 years. The record for longevity is an individual that lived in captivity for 28 years. At Ruthven Park Northern Cardinals can produce two broods with 3 or 4 eggs in each nest.
During the fall 2021 monitoring season 7 Northern Cardinals were banded and a male originally banded in 2019 was recovered.