March 2009 The Phoenix Cardinals gave all of us something to cheer about this year, but now that football season is over, you may want to go check out Arizona’s other Cardinals, the birds! Our teams’ handsome mascot, a male Northern Cardinal, is native to the state and fairly common down here in desert regions. (By contrast, the football team is not native to Arizona: the team originated in south Chicago in 1898, then migrated to St. Louis, Missouri in 1960. It wasn't until 1988 that Phoenix became the territorial center for the team.)
With their jaunty mohawk, brilliant red plumage, black face and orange beak, male Cardinals are one of the easiest birds in the country to recognize. They have a vast distribution, ranging all the way from southeastern Canada to Guatemala, and stretching from Maine to the Baja Peninsula. For some reason they don't make it over the Continental Divide, so they are most common in eastern North America. They are honored as the state bird in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. But not in Missouri (Bluebird) or Arizona (Cactus Wren).
If you spot a bright red male, there is usually a female nearby. Cardinals are devoted mates and travel with each other year round. As is common in the avian world, females are not as colorful so that they are better camouflaged during nesting season. But she is quite elegant in buffy gray feathers tinged with red on the crest, tail and wings. Cardinals are also well known in the bird-watching world for the clear, melodious songs exchanged between mates or territorial rivals. At this, both males and females are equally gifted.
Female cardinals tend to choose the reddest males as partners because they become the best mates and fathers, being better able to defend their territory and provide food for the family. In order to maintain their feathers' scarlet sheen, they need to feed on insects and fruits high in carotenoids during their molting period.
Cardinals are common throughout their range in thickets, riparian areas and in suburban shrubs and trees. They are non-migratory, so can be seen throughout the year in good habitat. Here in Arizona they are restricted to the southern parts of the state and are most common along washes and rivers, but not so much in very dry areas of the desert. They love thick mesquite bosques that provide protective cover from predators. Bright red wolfberries are a favorite food that helps maintain the scarlet sheen of their feathers. In the Deem Hills you are most likely to see a Cardinal on the north side in the trees along the wash that runs along the base of the Hills. Occasionally a pair will establish territory in the neighborhoods, especially if there is dense natural vegetation in a nearby wash or open space.
The name Cardinal actually originated from the Catholic Church when the Pope’s principle advisors were named Cardinals, which means “important” or “main.” The official robes of cardinals were dyed bright red to symbolize the blood of Christ and the idea that these bishops would die for their faith. From then on, certain shades of red have been known as “cardinal” red. Some bishops also wear pointy hats as part of their ceremonial garb. That is why European naturalists were reminded of the Roman Catholic cardinals when they first encountered these amazing red birds.
Since May 2005, I have written a natural history column for a neighborhood newsletter published by Jennifer Moore called "Our Big Backyard: Natural History of the Deem Hills," and since 2010, "A Suburban Naturalist."All of these columns are reproduced here. Deem Hills is a City of Phoenix Desert Preserve located just north of Happy Valley Road in north central Phoenix, and just west of I-17. The Preserve and adjacent hills comprise over 900 acres of open space with several miles of hiking trails. For more perspectives from the Deem Hills and suburban Phoenix, also check out my companion blog, Kat Tracks.
As a naturalist with a special interest in botany and plant ecology, some of my greatest passions are to explore, photograph and write about native plants. If I can spark an awareness or interest in natural history in others along the way, that is my greatest reward.