For the Birds Radio Program: Cardinals

Original Air Date: Oct. 5, 1992

It used to be that the only cardinals people saw in the northland were the St. Louis variety on TV. But lately the real thing has been appearing at more and more feeders. (3:47) Date verified.

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I’ve been hearing about cardinals here and there in the Northland all summer long. One listener writes that her 79-year-old mother has a pair of cardinals coming to her feeder in Morgan Park in Duluth, but she herself never gets any in Saginaw. Listeners from the Hayward area may be starting to take cardinals for granted, but they’re still exciting news over most of the Northland. The Duluth News-Tribune had a note in the outdoor section this spring that people who have cardinals should give Koni Sundquist a call and let her know where they are. Koni’s now up to 62 calls. The furthest northeast that she’s heard of a cardinal was at Castle Danger. The furthest northwest was in Cotton. She’s gotten calls from south of Moose Lake in Minnesota and from Iron River and Bayfield in Wisconsin. All in all, she’s had calls from Superior, Cloquet, Barnum, Esko, Wright, and a host of little towns. A half dozen callers were from East Duluth, and more than thirty from Duluth west of the zoo out to Fond du Lac.

Koni’s most exciting call was from Morgan Park, where a pair of cardinals was bringing two babies to a feeder. Morgan Park is a Duluth neighborhood right on the St. Louis River. The topography and the river keep the climate of Morgan Park a bit more balmy than that in most of Duluth, and lost southern birds are more likely to turn up there than just about anywhere in the city. And cardinals tend to build their nests near water. So it makes sense that Morgan Park would be the first place for cardinals to start up a new population in Duluth.

Cardinals eat weed seeds, and historically could not be found where snow covered the ground for long spells in winter. Once railroads started keeping long stretches of appropriate habitat open, and dropping grain along their tracks to boot, cardinals started expanding their ranges northward. And as feeding birds became more and more popular, the cardinals’ range expansion accelerated. Back in the late 1800s, sighting cardinals was exciting news in Chicago. They first started breeding around Madison, Wisconsin, in the 1920s. They made it to the Twin Cities as regular breeders in the 1950s. It’s taken a while for them to make it up to the Northland, but it’s been well worth the wait.

The Northern Cardinal is a fine looking and a fine sounding songbird, popular enough to have been chosen as the state bird of seven different states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. Although people like female cardinals okay, they obviously prefer the gaudier males. Arthur Singer drew seven cardinals from seven different angles for the state bird postage stamps, but nary a female is to be found among them. As a matter of fact, the only female state birds as drawn on the postage stamps are the Blue Hen (a chicken) of Delaware and the Rhode Island Red.

Although female cardinals are brown and fairly drab, they can sing just about as well as the males. Quite often, cardinals can be heard singing duets to cement their pair bonds—they’re the Steve and Edye of the bird world.

It’s hard to believe that the rich, robust song of a cardinal comes from a bird that weighs less than 2 ounces. The world is a brighter, happier place with cardinals in it, and the Northland promises to be even more pleasant than it is now with cardinals increasing every year.