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The cardinal rule

It is certainly one of the most unmistakable creatures in the United States. It graces the uniforms of professional sports teams in baseball and football, not to mention countless colleges and high schools across the nation. Im not sure if a person can go an entire Christmas season without getting at least one holiday card displaying it. Given its bold, beautiful appearance there is little wonder. It, of course, is the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis).

These are medium-sized birds with a long tail, relatively short wings, a robust conical bill and a distinctive crest. The male of the species is mostly a brilliant red with slightly less color on the back (the bird is named for the red robes worn by Roman Catholic cardinals). Its red bill sits in the middle of a black face patch giving it a somewhat masked appearance. Females are similar sized but display a much more muted color scheme that is mostly tans or grays with reddish highlights.

Along with the striking appearance, this bird is known for its rich, warbled song (of which there are many variations). Most often this takes place from a high treetop perch. One can hardly take a walk anywhere in the Southeast and not hear these birds singing. Both sexes sing and can be heard any time of year, making this aspect of their natural histories fairly unique in the bird world.

Given its breathtaking looks and pleasant singing voice, its no surprise it was a much-desired cage bird during the 19th century. During this time many thousands were trapped in the Southeast and shipped to markets in the north and in Europe. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 ended this practice.

During the last 200 years or so there has been an expansion of the Cardinals range to the northprobably due to habitat changes. While it can now be found in southern Canada in the east, the western edge of its range locally is about western Minnesota. It seems to limit itself to areas that receive at least 16 inches of rain per year. Oddly, there is a geographically separate population in southern Arizona and that bird exhibits slight differences from the eastern population.

Yes, a person can find Northern Cardinals here in the Fargo-Moorhead area if you are lucky; but in very limited locations and in very small numbers. My best guess would be about a couple dozen birds in the FM area at best. I found a handwritten record from 25 years ago that said Cardinals seem to be moving into the area. Well, I doubt it. I tend to believe we are on the bare edge of its range. Plus our area lacks the birds preferred habitat of successional scrub. For these reasons I think it will continue to be an uncommon bird unless something changes.

There are a handful of reliable locations to see Cardinals here. Ive recorded them a few times in West Fargos Elmwood Park. The other spots would be along both the Sheyenne and Red rivers in more wooded scrubby sites. A coworker even had a pair nest in his south Fargo neighborhood a couple years ago. Some homes that feed birds are lucky enough to see them on a very regular basis. This bird is not migratory so it will stay year round. Once it has found a reliable feeder it should continue to visit for quite some time. I know of a feeder in Horace that gets daily visits from three different birds. The other way to find them is to become familiar with its song. I found a pair last spring south of Fargo this way. Its bold, rich singing could be heard from at least a quarter mile away.

Once spotted, this animal will leave very little doubt why it captures the attention of all. Yes, they look pretty in pictures or on calendars. So does Lake Superior. But unless youve been to the North Shore and looked upon that vast inland sea, you really havent experienced it. It is likewise with the Northern Cardinal.