Birds that come from the north get a lot of attention, and there are southern birds that show up here, too. It’s likely that the motives of these species are different. The northern birds are migrants moving south from their breeding territories. The southern birds are pioneers looking to expand their ranges. The northern species are visitors; the southern birds are prospective residents. You might imagine the northerners are tourists while the southerners are immigrants.
The cardinal is prominent among the immigrants. Despite its common name, northern cardinal, this is a bird of the southeastern quarter of the continent, common as far north as southern Minnesota and less so farther north and west.
The cardinal has been expanding its range. The American Ornithologists’ Union monograph on the species notes, “It has taken advantage of moderate temperatures, human habitation and provisioning at bird feeders to expand its range northward.”
This has been a slow process. Cardinals have not yet become common this far north and west, even though they’ve been reported in North Dakota since the 1940s. In Manitoba, records go back to 1932.
Nesting records have become regular, but there aren’t many of them. For that reason, a cardinal always creates a stir among birders — and that is especially true of a female cardinal, since such a sighting suggests an increase in the cardinal population. That’s why a report of a female cardinal created a stir among local birders last week.
Cardinals are sexually dimorphic; males and females have different plumage. The male is brilliant red with a black mask. The female has a lesser mask and overall is grayish-green in color with more or less red on the feathers of the wings and tail. Young birds resemble females; males acquire the red plumage in their second year.
The cardinal is beloved wherever it is found. This attitude is expressed by the Manitoba Naturalists Association in its “Birds of Manitoba,” which opens its discussion by suggesting, “In a more perfect world, far more northern cardinals would be found in Manitoba.” The naturalists quote A.C. Bent, author of “Life Histories of North American Birds,” who said of the cardinal, “There is no more pleasing, soul-warming sight . . . when the ground is covered with snow and the world seems lifeless.”
Seven states have made the cardinal their avian emblem, making it the only bird more often chosen than North Dakota’s own western meadowlark, the official bird representative of six states. The most northwesterly state honoring the cardinal is Illinois.
The northern cardinal is not the only pioneering species that showed up on local bird counts. The red-bellied woodpecker was seen on Christmas bird counts in Grand Forks, Devils Lake and at Icelandic State Park near Cavalier, N.D. I believe this is the first time the species has been found on all three northeast North Dakota counts.
Like the cardinal, the red-bellied woodpecker is a southeastern bird. Remarkably, its range nearly matches the cardinal’s own.
Red-bellied woodpeckers are more recent arrivals here than northern cardinals. Perhaps that has something to do with the maturing of urban forests, which red-bellied woodpeckers seem to favor. Likely, the woodpeckers followed wooded river valleys to reach our area.
These species have responded to changes in habitat. In the case of the cardinal, “breeding range has expanded owing to three probably factors,” the AOU monograph states. These are “warmer climate, resulting in lesser snow depth and greater winter foraging opportunities; human encroachment into forested areas, increasing suitable edge habitat; and establishment of winter feeding stations, increasing food availability.”
The last two of these likely also apply to red-bellied woodpeckers, which prefer open woodlands rather than dense forested areas.
Both red-bellied woodpeckers and northern cardinals are resident birds, meaning they don’t migrate, instead spending the entire year in one area. Cardinals are known to be pioneers, and young male cardinals have sought breeding territories beyond the historic range of the species. This has been observed at least since the mid-1800s; historical accounts suggest that cardinals reached Ohio in the 1830s, Michigan in the 1880s and Minnesota and Wisconsin about 1900.
Here on the Plains, it’s been a long wait, but the signs are that cardinals are here to stay, if only in small numbers. Five were counted on the annual Grand Forks bird count held the week before Christmas.