It is impossible to pass by a cardinal without taking a second look, or a photo (usually many) if camera is in hand. As a child I remember my grandmother called it a "Redbird," and that name stuck until I got my first bird book. I didn't know it, but way back then the New York City area was only beginning to celebrate the return of this species. During the first quarter of the 20th Century it had inexplicably withdrawn from the northern limits of its range.
Ludlow Griscom wrote, in 1923 (Birds of the New York City Region, Amer. Mus. Nat. Hist., NY), that the "Eastern Cardinal" had been "extirpated" from the area. Its return to my home turf in New Jersey during the 1930s and 40s was variously attributed to milder winters and the increasing number of bird feeding stations.
I was gifted with a copy of Allan Cruickshank's 1942 edition of Birds Around New York City, which became my point of reference when I found an unusual bird or one during an unexpected time of year. Cruickshank described the cardinal as "...slowly but steadily re-establishing itself northward... Like all permanent residents which reach the northern limits of its range here, the Cardinal is subject to severe winter killings."
Later, John Bull would write: "The increase and spread of the Cardinal in the New York City region, as well as throughout most of the northeast, particularly since the mid-1940s, and more especially in the 1950s, has been positively phenomenal. Few, if any, species have made such gains" (Birds of the New York Area, 1962). Since that time we have seen extraordinary range expansions of other bird species, for example the House Finch, Cattle Egret, Boat-tailed Grackle, White-winged Dove, Eurasian Collard-Dove and the steady northward shift of the breeding grounds of many native land birds.
In the above portraits I have provided equal space for both male and female Northern Cardinals, for if one captivates us with color, the other subdues us with softness.
Cardinals may be North America's most welcome visitors to water features and back yard feeders.
Because I took up photography after moving to the sunny South, I suffer a notable absence of images of red cardinals on white snow, a magnificent combination. However, if you look closely at this coy female peering around our daughter's feeder in Illinois, you may catch a few snowflakes.
In the interest of fairness, I should also embarrass this adolescent male before he has time to dress in his finery. Note the dark bill which will become fully red as an adult.
An adult male in molt can be a sorry sight. I can't blame him for hiding behind a leaf!