Published January 20, 2013, 12:00 AM

ALWAYS IN SEASON: Gap closes between the running and the flying kind of cardinals

Probably, North Dakota has more running cardinals than the flying kind, but the gap appears to be closing. Flying cardinals are birds, of course. Running cardinals are high school athletes.

Probably, North Dakota has more running cardinals than the flying kind, but the gap appears to be closing.

Flying cardinals are birds, of course. Running cardinals are high school athletes.

The ratio of the running to the flying kind occurred to me last week, when I passed through Ellendale, N.D. Ellendale is one of at least four North Dakota high schools that call their athletic teams “Cardinals.”

Nostalgia probably drove these choices. The pioneer farmers who established these communities may have remembered cardinals — the flying kind — from their former homes farther east and south.

The name evokes grace and beauty, and those may have been motives to choose the name, as well.

But the name is not descriptive of local bird life.

Cardinals — the flying kind — are newcomers to the Northern Plains.

This is hardly surprising. Cardinals are birds of hedgerows and forest edges. They require fairly thick cover for nesting.

The windswept, treeless prairies would have been inhospitable to them.

In recent years — the past two decades, roughly — cardinals have become more frequent, however. A local population became established in Grand Forks several years ago. Now, reports of cardinal sightings are no longer surprising, though they aren’t quite routine just yet.

The latest came from Heidi Hughes, director of the Audubon Sanctuary near Warren, Minn. She sent a picture of a cardinal feeding on sunflower seeds. In the past two weeks, I’ve also had calls from the Gilby, N.D., area, although alas, no cardinals have graced my feeders there for more than a year.

There was also a call about cardinals from Langdon, N.D. Langdon is another of the North Dakota towns whose athletic teams are known as “Cardinals.”

These sightings — all north of Grand Forks — suggest that the population of cardinals is increasing and that it is prospecting new areas. Cardinals are well known as pioneers that continually press the fringes of their nesting range.

Until recently, habitat restricted cardinals in our area.

Some scientists suggest that climate change may play a role, as well. It may be that cardinals are vulnerable to extreme cold but can survive slightly warmer winters. Despite the weekend forecast, this has been a relatively warm winter, and last winter was among the warmest ever recorded here.

The boom in bird feeding also may have helped cardinals expand their range. They are seed eaters, and bird feeders are often in backyards that offer the kind of cover cardinals require.

Many of the cardinal reports take some sorting out. This is because the cardinal is a cryptic bird. Their appearance differs significantly by age and sex. Only adult males are the brilliant red color that’s so familiar. Females and immature birds are much less conspicuous. Adult females are gray-green with reddish highlights in the crest, wings and tail, and with a hint of the black mask that distinguishes the adult male. Juveniles lack the mask, but otherwise resemble the females, though they are usually not so red.

This can lead to confusion with another crested bird, the cedar waxwing. Waxwings are fruit eaters, however, and don’t come to seed feeders. They are also gregarious and often occur in large flocks. Cardinals are often solitary and never form large flocks.

While the increase in cardinals may portend something ominous about climate change (or maybe not), the birds are nevertheless a welcome addition to the local avifauna.

At last, we Plainspeople can enjoy the flying, as well as the running kind of cardinals.

• If you have been feeding birds, take special care to be certain that your feeders are full this weekend. Birds depend on these handouts, especially in cold weather, when they must eat almost constantly in order to take in enough fuel to heat themselves during the long, cold nights.

• Last week’s list of chicken-like birds overlooked one species. Although the sage grouse occurs only in extreme southwest North Dakota, and only in small numbers, it definitely deserves a place on the list of North Dakota chickens, which therefore stands at seven species rather than the six that I detailed last week.


Jacobs is publisher of the Herald. Reach him at (701) 780-1103; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1103; or send email to mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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