Cardinals take cold weather in stride

PHOTOS BY GARRY BRANDENBURG — Colorful Cardinal birds are well adapted to winter weather. Since they do not migrate toward southern warmer wintering grounds as some bird species do, they must make do with what foods they can find locally. They seem to be well adapted to survival. Today’s images show these backyard cardinals feeding on sunflower seeds, cracking the hull by careful placement in their beaks, biting down to split that hull. Feather coloration is quite obvious for this species with the male having a bright red plumage and black facial markings. Cardinals also have a distinctive elongated head crest of feathers. Enjoy viewing this species all winter long, and all year long.

Cardinal birds and winter go together. No matter what the winter weather may be, one can almost always count on seeing cardinals coming and going to bird feeding stations. While hiking into and along nature trails at any county park, cardinals may be observed along with other non-migratory bird critters. A flash of bright red is a pretty good sign that cardinals are close by. If that flash of color happens to be a duller gray/brown with each feather tip having a hint of red, it could easily be the female cardinal.

During the spring, summer and fall, foods eaten by cardinals include seeds, fruits and insects. Insects are a great form of protein to help create the energy needed for rearing young and sustaining their own health. Fruits and nuts of over 100 hundred types on the menu. The list has seeds from many plants, and grapes, blueberries, mulberries, hackberries and more. Plant material is also eaten.

In the springtime, a cardinal male may place a food source to a female’s feet. If she takes the food, it is one sign of her acceptance of him as a mate, part of the courtship ritual. Other factors in the female’s choice are coloring and signing abilities. As for coloring, the larger the male’s dark face markings appears to help her decide. Nest site selection is next on the list of things to do.

A nest could be in shrubs, trees or vines, and the nest itself will be made up of twigs, leaves, grasses, pine needles and stems. Four layers go into the nest building starting with larger twigs, then softer leaves, followed by a layer of tree bark pieces. The final fourth layer has soft leaves and pine needles. Up to five eggs will be laid in each of two nestings for the year. With that many young fledglings from nests all over North America, no wonder this species is of least concern regarding its population status. Nesting duties are shared by both parents’ birds.

Once a nest site has been established, cardinals defend their territory from all real or perceived interlopers. Real bird competition will be fought with and defeated. Imagined opponents can be the cardinal’s reflection in a mirror or a clean window glass. Even car bumper reflections can distract a male cardinal to fight an enemy that is not real.

This winter, enjoy bright red cardinals all season long. They take the winter weather with gusto and cope quite well.

Conservation and history lesson is my next topic, shortened for sure, but the important points help set the stage for where we are today. Settlement of North America by people living off the land as best they could involved choices of chance. Surviving was at the top of the list. So if, perchance, a pioneer family happened to see a wild turkey, out came the old reliable musket to shoot the big bird. At the time, little thought was given to concepts of specific hunting seasons or bag limits. Those ideas had to wait at least 150 years to become acceptable.

A wild turkey had a fair amount of meat on its bones. So several meals could be made from its drumsticks and large breast meat. Likewise, a pioneer family would take other wild game and fishes as opportunity allowed. These supplements were in addition to whatever garden or crops could be grown in season. Life was not easy during those early times. A result of unregulated taking of wild game birds or mammals eventually led to keen observers wondering how to manage and sustain breeding populations.

It was noted that at the turn of the century in 1900, lots of wild game was beginning to be hard to come by. A few of the observers were also active hunters themselves, such as Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, George Bird Grinnell and others. They formed the Boone & Crockett Club and used their status to help formulate what we now know as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. The list of advances included Iowa Congressman John F. Lacey’s draft of the Lacey Act, written in 1900, which prohibited transport of illegally taken game animals across state lines.

From 1901 to 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt protected more than 230 million acres of American lands and waters. In 1911, Massachusetts Congressman John Weeks was involved with legislation to allow the purchase of land east of the Mississippi River for national forests.

By 1914, the decline in passenger pigeons over the previous 50 years taught people to not take wildlife for granted, and 1916 was the year for the Migratory Bird Treaty between Canada, the United States and Mexico. This act prohibited egg and nest collecting — a hobby spill over from Europe and England — in addition to beginning to regulate hunting.

Then in 1933, Aldo Leopold wrote the book, the early science-based ideals of “Game Management.” His tenets were the basis for balancing wildlife needs with habitat and using regulated hunting as just one tool to help maintain dynamic population numbers. Later in 1937, to help fund the work of management, sportsmen signed onto the idea of a 10 percent excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition. It was and still is known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, whereby states could match each state one dollar in license fees with three dollars of PR funds.

Now the stage was set for the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation to shine widely in every state department of natural resources. There are seven major points in this document.

They are: 1. Natural resources on public land are managed by government agencies to ensure a place for wildlife and wild places that people could use. 2. Since all wildlife is publicly owned, it is illegal in North America to sell the meat of any wild animal. It did allow a select method for legal sale of antlers, horns, hides, skulls, teeth and fur from fur bearing animals. 3. Every citizen has the right to help create laws to conserve and manage wildlife and their habitats. 4. Every citizen has the opportunity, under law, to hunt and fish. 5. Legal taking of wild animals under strict guidelines for food and fur, for self-defense and property protection is allowed. 6. Wildlife migrates freely across borders, provinces and states. In last and seventh place, science helps make good decisions, so that everyone becomes a better steward of wildlife.

Going back to the wild turkey example, from a low point of about 30,000 birds when early settlement was in high gear, the population is now in excess of seven million! This happened via wildlife management of regulated hunting and habitat protection. Funding just for wild turkey activities generates about $2 billion into the economy of North America each year. All the various supplies, arms and ammo, transportation, gas and groceries employ one million people in jobs related to hunting. Hunting enjoys an 80 percent approval rating from the general public as long as the meat from wild game is carefully and respectfully utilized and taken in fair chase.

Thanks for taking the time to learn these tidbits of history together.

All of us have a signature. All of us leave a signature on the landscape. Wildlife leaves its signature in the form of tracks left by webbed feet, clawed toes, hoof prints or wingbeats in the snow. As for mankind, it is our ‘signatures’ we lend to habitat projects in wetlands, forests and prairies that have lasting benefits. This is where our labor and our financial contributions collectively make a difference. Every worthy cause dedicated to wildlife conservation plays a role. Our rich outdoor heritage must not be taken for granted.


Garry Brandenburg is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. He is a graduate of Iowa State University with a BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology.


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