Wednesday, March 5, 2008

I See Red

Ah, love is in the air. Perhaps it’s the beautiful, bright, red feathers or its mysterious, jet black mask, (Westley from the Princess Bride, anyone?) but there’s something about seeing a cardinal that makes people go “Oooohhh…pretty bird.” Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Cardinalis cardinalis, the Redbird, the Virginia nightingale…or most commonly called: the Northern Cardinal.

The mating season for the cardinal doesn’t begin until spring. It won’t be long before we begin to hear its romantic song. Beginning in April and lasting until September, the cardinal mating season or “courtship” is not unlike our own human courting ritual: dating. As human males generally do, the male cardinal generally attempts to show off for the females. By swelling his throat, spreading his tail and wings and swaying his bright red body from side to side, the male emits a very loud and shrill mating call – a series of beautiful melodies that can be heard repeatedly until the female he so desires is wooed. Of course, as we all know in the human world, it is ultimately up to the female to choose her mate. Usually, she chooses based on the male cardinal’s ornamentation. The female, though you’d think, does not display the same brilliant red color as the males but rather a grayish brown plumage streaked with hints of dull red. The color of the male’s feathers and beak as well as the size of its black mask are definite signs that the female has found herself the love of her life.

Once the courtship is over, the mating begins. The male usually involves the female in a ritual called “mate feeding” in which the male will feed his lover a cornucopia of tidbits such as seeds, berries, insects and other treats. As he feeds her, the two birds touch beaks as if they were passionately kissing to symbolize their love. This goes on until the female lays eggs, usually three to four at a time, which is called a brood. Cardinals will usually produce up to four broods a year.

And like the noble Westley defending his true love Buttercup in the Princess Bride, the male cardinal, with his black mask and pointy beak (I guess that would be his sword?) valiantly defends his mating territory. There are times when the male is so aggressive he will even attack his own reflection in a nearby mirror.

Cardinals are among the few species of birds that often mate for life. Once they mate, they spend the rest of their days singing beautiful songs with each other and living happily ever after.

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