We’re lucky to have a superstar of the bird world in Southeast Arizona, the Northern Cardinal, and I couldn’t resist the cliché use of this species around the wintry holidays. Turns out, it really is an interesting bird but probably owes its popularity to its striking red color. Male cardinals are brilliantly red, while females are a rich tan with tinges of red on the crest, wings, and tail. And that crest! Both have the super tall and jaunty crest, huge orange bill, and a tidy black face mask and chin. The red color results from the ingestion of carotenoid pigments and may indicate mate quality—brighter males have higher reproductive success.
The male Northern Cardinal may be responsible for getting more people into birdwatching than any other bird in North America, perhaps only locally rivaled by the Vermilion Flycatcher here in Tucson. They don’t migrate and they don’t molt into a less-colorful plumage, so they’re still visual show-stoppers in dull, winter backyards, especially in the snow. Cardinals readily come to feeders, and both the males and females are loud and boisterous singers—her songs from the nest may provide the male with information about whether to bring back food. Being fiercely territorial, they amuse and worry many people during breeding season when they endlessly attack their reflections in windows or car mirrors. Cardinals are the perfect mix of color, sound, and style, so it’s no wonder they are the state bird of seven states.
Here in Southeast Arizona, Northern Cardinals are at home at your backyard feeder or out in the lush washes of the desert, preferring hackberry and mesquite thickets. Our desert subspecies is the largest of the recognized eighteen subspecies with a stouter bill, taller crest, and less black across the forehead. Put out some sunflower seeds (their favorite!), oranges, or grapes, and you’ll probably attract cardinals to your yard. Grapes? To see this is no cliché: they are known to peel grapes and discard the skin to eat the fleshy fruit inside!