Northern Cardinal at the feeder

Faces at a Feeder: Northern Cardinal

Years ago, I used to set out every weekend to photograph birds along some nature trail around my home. With the arrival of my son and additional responsibilities at work, photography became an afterthought. Slowly, I grew estranged with bird photography. I still dabbled in landscape photography during vacations or when I was expecting a colorful sunrise or sunset. During this COVID-19 lockdown, my friend and mentor Beej had challenged me to start peeking more out of my window. My initial, lethargic reaction was, “What would I see that’s new?” I had spent days at my feeder sometime ago and believed I had seen everything that was there. However, I decided I would look out of the windows at least for a few minutes every day, which turned out to be an eye-opener.

I started finding lifers right here, outside my window. The overall bird species count jumped to more than thirty in a month. I began leaving water out for the birds when I noticed a Blue Jay drinking water that was caught in an empty flowerpot after a spell of rain. The squirrels prospered as well as they started raiding the feeders in broad daylight. One month down, I found myself with enough pictures and experiences to start a new series. So, here’s the first one!

The male Northern Cardinal is a photogenic customer
Daddy cardinal stands sentinel near the feeder

The Northern Cardinal is very common in urban woods. They are unmissable thanks to the bright red coloration of the males, and the mostly upright crests. The female, although a little less gaudily colored, still turns heads with her ruby-red lips and rusty wing and tail feathers. They have been the most common birds at my feeder. Not surprising, considering that it is the state bird of North Carolina (and six other states as well).

The female Northern Cardinal was the bolder and less wary of the two
The proud matriarch

The female is the more adventurous of the two, sitting near the feeder giving me a wary eye, but at the same time seldom looking restless. I would soon see the pair disappearing into a thicket adjacent to my neighbor’s house. A few days later, eager cheeps started emanating from inside the thicket.

Papa approaches his nest
Another angle of Papa Cardinal

The cardinals grew aggressive, being particularly merciless in the presence of the sinewy-looking Common Grackles. The male would give chase to the grackles any time they landed near the feeder. I saw a pair of Mockingbirds too getting the same treatment from the cardinal once.

In days to follow, I would see a shaggy-looking youngster appear near the feeder. It would never feed on its own, and to my surprise, I found that it was the daddy cardinal who was feeding it most of the time. The young Northern Cardinal would rarely come to the feeder and would lurk in foliage most of the time.

Picture of a relaxed Mama Cardinal
Mama cardinal strikes a relaxed pose
This visiting female apparently had a skin condition
A straggler at the feeder, this cardinal apparently has some kind of skin condition.
A young, fledged Northern Cardinal
A youngster who recently left the nest. Though I heard multiple voices cheeping from the nest, it looks like only this one made it out alive.

Over the month, I ended up seeing a few other individuals. Another male that looked paler in color turned up. Daddy cardinal would chase it off every time they were in the scene together. A female Northern Cardinal with a skin condition and a few less vibrant males would blow in and disappear. But the ones that nested in the thicket still seem to rule the roost, strutting with a royal air when they are not gently feeding the young one. The youngster, too, seems to be doing well. I do hope it grows up into a healthy ambassador of its kind.


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