For the Birds Radio Program: Cardinals

Original Air Date: Jan. 9, 1989

(Recast from July 9, 1986) (Date confirmed) (3:54)

Audio missing



(Recording of a Cardinal)

A lot of people living in the Northland came here from somewhere else–and almost invariably somewhere south. Wise people from Minneapolis, Chicago, and other tropical areas appreciate living by the big lake: it’s beautiful, its temperature is exactly right for cooling down a can of pop if you run out of ice in mid-July, and, best of all, you hardly ever swelter up here–air conditioning not only costs billions of dollars in other cities–it’s also limited to indoors–the whole outdoors of the Twin Cities is hot and unpleasant just about all summer. Duluth is on the shore of, and holds free rights to, the world’s largest built-in, natural air-conditioner. And think of all the time people waste in southern cities–they have to put away their winter clothes every single summer and pull out a whole new summer wardrobe. Where it’s truly colder by the lake, wool is in fashion all year. Our winters aren’t plagued with too many of those untimely thaws either, leaving the snow all sooty and pock-marked and exposing dead, brown grass.

Yes, we along Lake Superior have cleverly escaped heat spells and muddy winters and all the other unpleasant conditions of more southern climes. We would truly be in paradise here if we had only one thing–something that people further south take for granted–the cardinal.

Even Northland natives recognize the cardinal, that crested red bird that sings pretty, pretty, pretty or cheer, cheer, cheer. It’s a favorite all around the United States—the official state bird of no fewer than seven states. The Cardinal is unusual in that both males and females sing year-round.

(Recording of a Cardinal)

Cardinals are not migratory birds, although individuals may roam extensively. They used to be even more of a southern species than they are now–they’re slowly but steadily extending their range northward. In the nineteenth century, cardinals did not breed anywhere in Minnesota, although they occasionally visited. By the mid-1930’s they were breeding regularly in the Twin Cities. By the 60’s, they were up as far north as Morrison County. Every year there are several sightings of individual cardinals in Duluth, Superior, and towns along the shore, like Port Wing, Wisconsin. And this winter, pairs have been found at many feeders throughout the Lake Superior area, though not mine. You might be sitting at your window, watching the chickadees, when all of a sudden a splash of red catches your eye. You rub your binoculars in disbelief, but, sure enough, it’s a cardinal. They usually spend only a few days, but sometimes an individual cardinal will stick around for a month or more.

Cardinals are fond of sunflower seeds. Your best chance of attracting one is to have a lot of noisy birds, like evening grosbeaks, coming to your feeder regularly. When a lost cardinal arrives in town, invariably without a map or auto club guide, noisy birds will be its best clue to a good bird restaurant. Sooner or later, a male and female will manage to breed up here, and without a cat murdering their babies, eventually cardinals will be regular breeders up here, so that optimistic South Shore High School team will finally be able to live up to its name–the South Shore Cardinals.

(Recording of a Cardinal)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”