CLOSE
iStock
iStock

10 Crimson Facts About Cardinals

iStock
iStock

Every year, these crested songbirds add a welcome dash of color to the drab wintery months. Let’s get a little better acquainted with our rosy, non-migratory neighbors.

1. THERE’S MORE THAN ONE SPECIES.

For the remainder of this article, we’ll be focusing on the northern cardinal, the most famous species here in the United States. But the genus to which it belongs, Cardinalis, does contain two lesser-known members: The desert cardinal (also known as pyrrhuloxia), which can be found in Mexico and the American southwest and has a distinctive scarlet and gray coat, and the radiant vermillion cardinal, which can be found in Venezuela and Colombia. There are also several closely related members of the Cardinalidae family, such as buntings, grosbeaks, and dickcissels, which are often referred to as cardinals.

2. THEY’RE NAMED AFTER THE CATHOLIC BISHOPS.

American colonists named the birds cardinals as a nod to the red-gowned religious figures (either directly or after the word cardinal had become a term for a particular shade of red). Over the past 400 years, people have also called them crested redbirds, Virginia nightingales, and—paradoxically—red blue jays. The term cardinal ultimately derives from cardo, a Latin word meaning “hinge.” In Vatican City, several important jobs—like electing Popes—do, in fact, hinge upon the cardinals (hence the name).

3. THEIR COLORING COMES FROM WHAT THEY EAT.

Northern cardinals, like flamingoes, use food—such as grapes or dogwood berries—to keep up appearances. During the digestive process, pigments from the fruit enter the bloodstream and make their way to feather follicles and crystallize. If a cardinal can't find berries to snack on, its hue will gradually start fading.

4. CARDINALS VOLUNTARILY COVER THEMSELVES WITH ANTS.

It's appropriately called anting and over 200 species of bird, from the wild turkey to the Baltimore oriole, do it. Why? Experts aren’t sure. Maybe the formic acids that these insects release help ward off lice. Or perhaps the chemicals make molting easier. At any rate, cardinals go about anting in two different ways: Sometimes, the birds mash up the insects and smear them around like sunscreen. On other occasions, they’ll simply drop live ants into their plumage.

5. SEVEN STATES CALL THE NORTHERN CARDINAL THEIR OFFICIAL BIRD.

Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia all do so, making this species the most popular state bird in America.

6. HUMANS HAVE REALLY HELPED THEM SPREAD.

Once upon a time, the northern cardinal was mainly a southern bird. In the 1880s, people rarely spotted them above the Ohio River. Obviously, this is no longer the case. In 1896, the first northern cardinal was reported in Ontario. By 1910, they’d become common throughout the Canadian province. The rise of suburbs can help explain this trend, since shrubs and small trees—which these neighborhoods have in abundance—are a cardinal’s favorite haunts. On a related note, the avians were deliberately introduced to Hawaii and and became firmly entrenched in southern California during the 1920s.

7. MALES FEED FEMALES AS PART OF THEIR COURTSHIP RITUAL.

Cardinals of the fairer sex use this custom to evaluate potential suitors. Any candidate who can fetch top-quality seeds likely has good foraging skills, a sizable territory, or, ideally, both. When the incubation process starts, a female’s partner bears total responsibility for satisfying her dietary needs—so locating good chow will be a critical part of his job description. 

8. COME WINTERTIME, THEY TEND TO CREATE BIG FLOCKS.

In the warmer months, cardinal pairs aggressively defend a plot of land sized between two and 10 acres—so you might think that they get especially territorial in winter, when food gets much scarcer than usual. Instead, cardinal pairs will often join forces in the quest for sustenance. As temperatures drop, temporary flocks consisting of five or more couples band together. Loose confederacies like this also make individual birds less vulnerable to cardinal-eating predators, which are spotted more readily by large groups. At the end of the day, there’s safety in numbers.   

9. MANY SUFFER FROM BIRDIE “BALDNESS.”   

Naked-headed cardinals don’t make for a pleasant sight. Wild specimens that suffer from a near-total lack of feathers on their heads and necks are documented every year. Many experts blame parasites, though some—like Eastern Kentucky University ornithologist Gary Ritchison—have their doubts. Ritchison has personally handled “thousands” of cardinals, including several baldies. Among those afflicted birds, he says that “None … had severe lice or mite problems.” Alternative explanations include abnormal molting patterns and cranial injuries.

10. A DUAL-SEX CARDINAL WAS PHOTOGRAPHED IN 2011.

In northern cardinals, males and females look noticeably different. The former are a vibrant shade of crimson, the latter a drab gray with a few red highlights on the wings and crest. Imagine, then, the confusion that Larry Ammann must have felt one strange January morning. Perched upon the Texan’s birdfeeder was an eye-catching cardinal whose right side was grey and whose left side was red.

A statistics professor and wildlife photographer, Ammann snapped a few shots of his guest. Intrigued, he decided to conduct a little online research—which is when things got weird. “In just a few hours, I learned … that this bird is an extremely rare bilateral gynandromorphy cardinal,” the statistician said. What does that mean? Basically, Ammann put it, “a genetic mistake occurred during the first cell division of the fertilized ovum, causing one of the cells produced by this division to be male and the other to be female. As this egg developed, the entire right side remained female and the left side remained male.”

Gynandromorphy is more commonly observed in crustaceans and insects. Still, every so often, split-sexed vertebrates turn up. In 2003, for example, a gynandromorph zebra finch made international headlines. Amazingly, biologists learned that the masculine and feminine sides of this animal’s brain behaved in two different ways—but it chirped out exclusively male calls and copulated with a female finch.

All images courtesy of iStock 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Animals
Where Do Birds Get Their Songs?
iStock
iStock

Birds display some of the most impressive vocal abilities in the animal kingdom. They can be heard across great distances, mimic human speech, and even sing using distinct dialects and syntax. The most complex songs take some practice to learn, but as TED-Ed explains, the urge to sing is woven into songbirds' DNA.

Like humans, baby birds learn to communicate from their parents. Adult zebra finches will even speak in the equivalent of "baby talk" when teaching chicks their songs. After hearing the same expressions repeated so many times and trying them out firsthand, the offspring are able to use the same songs as adults.

But nurture isn't the only factor driving this behavior. Even when they grow up without any parents teaching them how to vocalize, birds will start singing on their own. These innate songs are less refined than the ones that are taught, but when they're passed down through multiple generations and shaped over time, they start to sound similar to the learned songs sung by other members of their species.

This suggests that the drive to sing as well as the specific structures of the songs themselves have been ingrained in the animals' genetic code by evolution. You can watch the full story from TED-Ed below, then head over here for a sample of the diverse songs produced by birds.

[h/t TED-Ed]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
arrow
Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios