Conservation Corner

Nature’s Valentine: The Northern Cardinal

By Dan Zarlenga, Missouri Department of Conservation

February is a time we celebrate love. Red is the theme, when red hearts, red candy, and red valentines abound. Nature gives us its own special flourish of red for Valentine’s Day in the form of the northern cardinal. These beautiful birds are common statewide in Missouri. You probably see them flying in your own backyard or clustered around birdfeeders. Cardinals live with us year-round, but their striking red often stands out even more against wintertime’s drab palate, or the stark white of a fresh snowfall.

It’s only the male cardinal that sports that race-car coloring and dashing black face mask, though. Females are more of a muted brown with orange accents on their wings, bill and tail. Both male and female cardinals share the same basic size and shape, including the prominent crest on their heads and a thick, conical bill.

Those bills are perfect for cracking into seeds, which is a major part of the cardinal’s diet. They really love sunflower seeds, so pack your birdfeeders with those to draw in cardinals. They also forage on the ground and in shrubs for insects, spiders, seeds, fruits, and berries. Cardinals need to eat foods rich in certain pigments, which helps them maintain their flashy colors. You might think of cardinals as painting themselves from the inside out!

Cardinals are also known as sweet songsters. Their bright, melodic calls can even be heard in February when many other birds are still silent.

Some might be tempted to think that cardinals were named after St. Louis’ own major league baseball team, but it was the other way around. Cardinals, the birds that is, originally got their name because their appearance resembled the red robes and caps worn by Roman Catholic cardinals. In any case, the cardinal’s quick-flying, acrobatic antics make it a perfect mascot for fleet-footed baseball players.

One thing that can be harmful to cardinals are free-roaming house cats. Cats have the instinct to prey on songbirds, and this is in addition to the natural predators these birds already face. Cats can really hurt songbird populations. In the true spirit of Valentine’s Day, consider showing some love to cardinals and other songbirds by keeping pet cats indoors.

Now that you know how to tell the males and females apart, you’ll recognize a happy cardinal couple together when you see them. The melodious calls of the cardinal seem to sing of love and the male’s dazzling red plumage is nature’s ultimate valentine card. And unlike the Baseball Cardinals, nature’s cardinals provide your backyard plenty of action and entertainment during every season, even in February.

For information visit www.MDC.mo.gov