In the middle of a March snowstorm in Minnesota, a Cardinal is singing.

These hardy birds aren’t troubled by the blowing show – and March is the start of their breeding season.

Only about a quarter of Minnesota’s bird species stick it out through the winter, and the stoic North American Cardinal is one of them. Pairs stay together, remain active and maintain their territory despite sub-zero temperatures. In extreme conditions they’ll show up at feeders more often during the day. By March they’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel and putting on their best colors; and the males are singing, usually at the tops of trees.

But early spring storms can be dangerous if food sources get covered with heavy wet snow and ice. Although Cardinals have been known to live 15 years, their average lifespan is just 3. Winter takes its toll.

Summer and fall are the good times for Cardinals. Since they don’t migrate, their territories are stable and food sources are known. Males are rarely in physical conflict, seeming to settle it all by song, so they project confidence. They tend to show up at feeders early in the mornin, and late in the afternoon – a challenge for photography, but also a chance for beautiful late-day light.

Males are almost all red, but have individual differences in their black face masks (you can see some in these photos). Females are equally striking, with more varied colors including shades of yellow and orange.

Like most birds, Cardinals are responsible parents, caring for their young even beyond the point where it seems necessary. Here, a mother devotedly feeds peanuts to her male offspring, who clearly could manage this on his own despite not yet having his full adult coloring. Being granivores (seed eaters), Cardinals have strong beaks and love peanuts.

Cardinals sometimes molt the feathers on their heads, for reasons unknown. The birds look scruffy for a couple of weeks as they grow back.

These exotic looking, yet tough and resilient boreal songbirds light up the winter in Minnesota and are doing well in urban areas. They’re an endless photo opportunity, and a psychological anchor for humans during the months of snow, cold and reduced light – as they keep calm and carry on.

See all my Minnesota bird photography here.

3 Replies to “Cardinals”

  1. Love this article, Jim. I did not realize that cardinals don’t fly south for the winter. I especially love the image of the cardinal with snow on their head. You’ve captured these beautiful birds so perfectly!

  2. I was born and raised in east-central Indiana. The state bird happens to be the Cardinal. I attended Ball State University who’s mascot/sports teams are the Cardinals. I relocated to North Carolina in 1997, The NC state bird? Wait for it… the Cardinal! Just a little trivia for you Jim. 😉

    Lovely article and really nice photos accompanying it. Thanks for all the information.

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