I have never kept track of those birds which are in greatest demand for visiting birders I have helped, but Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is high on the list. It is a stunning bird, possessed of a beautiful loud song which carries far, it is not reluctant to approach humans and is present all year.
Let us first deal with the male.
Imagine that you had never seen one. How could you not be bowled over by this jaunty pirate with his black mask? Based on daily encounters with cardinals I feel confident in saying that you never become indifferent to "His Holiness" no matter how often you see him.
Puffed out against the bitter chill of wintry blasts, feet tucked under its feathers, it looks comfortable; fully at home in its environment, tough enough to handle whatever conditions nature delivers.
To look into a woodlot and see a burst of crimson is always a thrill. It never gets old, believe me.
Cardinals are principally seed eaters, as their powerful bill denotes, but they are not averse to eating caterpillars and arthropods, and they especially seek such prey when they have young in the nest; hungry mouths anxious for protein to stimulate healthy growth. This unfortunate victim was battered into submission along our fence rail a couple of summers ago.
Short months later the same bird perhaps, was on the ground beneath the feeders searching for sunflower seeds in the snow.
Shakespeare immortalized the words of Richard III who offered his kingdom for a horse. Perhaps that is only because he had never seen a cardinal!
There are only a couple of spots we know of where Northern Cardinals routinely congregate to feed with other species in the winter, Riverside Park in Cambridge, being one of them. In the picture below, to the left and behind the cardinal you can see an American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea).
And now let us turn to the female of the species.
Not as vivid as the male, but equally attractive in a muted way, with a subtle blending of beiges and browns, with hints of grey, all assembled in a way that only nature can achieve, indisputably a Northern Cardinal at first glance.
They grace our garden in equal measure as the males.
On all our local walks we are likely to see cardinals. Here on the Benjamin Park Trail right behind our house......
...... and along the Mill Race Trail in St. Jacobs.
At Riverside Park a female perches in a tree......
......but wastes no time in dropping down to enjoy the smorgasbord laid out by friendly humans, in the company of other species, as mentioned above. Here the female is feeding alongside an American Tree Sparrow and a White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis).
In fact, the assemblage of birds at this location is often nothing short of remarkable.
In the picture above are Northern Cardinals, male and female, American Tree Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis). They are often joined by Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura), House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), Downy Woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens), Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), White-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis), Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) and others. Most of the time there seems to be little squabbling, and perhaps the demands of winter survival stimulate the birds to concentrate on the important task of securing food.
It is always encouraging to see humans involved with nature in this way, and I have little doubt that many people, old and young alike, get their first close encounter with wild birds along the boardwalk at Riverside Park.
And the Northern Cardinal may be the biggest draw of them all.