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A Red Flash in the Bright Snowy Landscape

I know Christmas is close at hand, but this is not a story about Santa and his reindeer swooping down on a snowy landscape to deliver presents. The red flash I’m talking about here is that of a male cardinal, and fortunately, their sightings are fairly common even into the winter months here in Pennsylvania. As we move into the winter months, a lot of my attention is focused on hunting, but I am also a lover of nature and the outdoors, including the birds that winter here in Pennsylvania. Not only do I enjoy seeing various birds throughout the winter, but as a wildlife artist, I also enjoy painting scenes featuring our local birdlife. While I enjoy photographing and painting a lot of different birds, I must admit that one of my favorites is the cardinal.

The cardinal is probably one of the country’s most loved bird species, and likely for several reasons. First, it’s very easy to pick out and identify; the brilliantly plumed red male is a stand-out. The female of the species is buff-brown, tinged with red on the crest, wings, and tail. Second, cardinals sing well; both males and females sing throughout the year, and researchers have recorded at least 28 songs and calls. A third reason they seemed to be liked is they are a year-round resident, even into the winter months. Since they readily feed on seeds and not just insects, they winter over well and are frequent visitors to our backyard bird feeders. Cardinals’ favorite habitat is woodland edges, thickets, brushy swamps, and even gardens, and much of that is available here in our area. The cardinal has actually been steadily expanding its range northward into areas where it was rarely seen a century ago.

A typical cardinal clutch usually contains three or four bluish-white, brown spotted eggs which hatch about 12 days after being laid. Some bird watchers have reported an interesting trait of adult nesting cardinals; apparently, their instinct to feed their young is so strong that the adults will even offer food to any other young bird in the area. I even read of one case where a cardinal nest was being used simultaneously by a pair of adult robins. Apparently, three young cardinals and four newborn robins were all reared together, and parental duties were apparently shared.

Only about one fledgling in three lives long enough, about a year, to reach its full adult plumage. An estimated 40 percent of the adult birds die each year from several different causes, but despite this high turnover, the cardinals continue to prosper and expand. No doubt, one of the reasons the cardinals have sustained themselves so well is the fact that so many of us make use of bird feeders, especially during the winter months. Cardinals are more than willing to wolf down plenty of sunflower seeds at each visit to the feeder.

While I enjoy seeing all the various songbirds during the winter months, that bright red cardinal is one of my favorites. I guess it’s time to fill the feeders with sunflower seeds.