Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Cardinal
Nature Bulletin No. 288-A   January 6, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

THE CARDINAL
In our northern states there are many birds that remain all winter. Some are year-round residents; others have come from their summer homes farther north; a few are strays that failed to migrate with the others of their kind. Farther south you would find more variety but people in the Chicago area, interested in winter birds, are particularly fortunate. Surrounding the city are 50,000 acres of forest preserves offering a wide choice of food and cover. About 20 miles west, the Morton Arboretum, with its plantations of coniferous trees and wealth of food- producing shrubs, attracts more kinds of winter birds, perhaps, than most other places. In many of the older suburbs, because of their trees and shrubbery, and even in some of the larger parks and cemeteries within Chicago itself, several kinds may be seen and attracted to feeding stations.

Most spectacular of our non-migratory birds is the Cardinal or Cardinal Grosbeak, the state bird of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio. The male is vermilion-red all over, except for a black face and throat. Even his heavy beak is orange-red. Almost as large as a robin, he has a long tail and a jaunty crest which bristles when he is alarmed. His wife also has a red beak but her head and body are olive- gray above, lighter gray below, with tinges of dull red on her crest, wings, tail, and sometimes the breast. Young males are colored much like the female, but darker.

In early winter the silence of the woodlands is broken by the tapping of the downy and the hairy woodpeckers searching for grubs, occasionally the cheerful "Chicka-dee-dee-dee" of the black-capped chickadee or the nasal "Yank-yank" of a nuthatch, and -- when they spy you -- the loud "Thief, thief, thief! " of the bluejays and the cawing of the crows. But, in January, some of the male cardinals start to sing and we hear those ringing whistles: "Wet-year, wet-year, weet, weet, weet, weet", or '"Whurty, whurty, whurty, whurty". If imitated, they often answer, as they do a rival male. About this time, too, the tufted titmouse is heard whistling his clear call: "Peter, peter, peter" Later in the year, the female cardinals also sing -- almost as well as the males but more softly.

Cardinals seem to prefer thickets and forest edges, Their food is chiefly wild fruits, seeds, and a variety of insects including many serious pests. They are particularly fond of sunflower, melon, squash and pumpkin seeds. It is interesting to watch them squatting on a feed tray or the snow-covered ground, methodically crushing sunflower seeds in their powerful bills, swallowing the meat, and spitting out the hulls. Before daylight every winter morning, a few cardinals and several juncoes are waiting at our feeding station. The redbirds fly a short distance away, uttering metallic "clinks", when we come to replenish the tray and scatter seeds and grain on the ground. Soon after, there may be a dozen or more of them busily eating seeds. There is always an old male that bosses all the other cardinals but pays no attention to the juncoes because they prefer small grain. Toward spring, however, he frequently begins to pass seeds to his mate.

Birds have personalities. It is fascinating to see how alert they are, to learn the traits of the different kinds, to compare the seed eaters with the insect eaters, and to detect the differences between individuals of the same kind. Meanwhile, you learn the details of their plumage, shape, bill, feet and tail. A feeding station visible from the window of your kitchen or breakfast room -- even on the windowsill itself -- is ideal for this pastime.

If you want to see 'em: feed 'em.


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