A common comment from readers at this time of year describes the frantic behavior of certain species of songbirds, notably the American robin, attacking its reflection in windows and the side mirrors of cars. In addition to this comical, to some, or disturbing, to others, display, the car mirrors are often covered in guano.A recent report attributed car mirror attacks and defecation to a female northern cardinal, which surprised the observer who assumed that the work of establishing and defending nesting territories fell solely to the more conspicuously colored male.
Our winter cardinal flocks recently disbanded, and breeding pairs are beginning to stake out their nesting territories by singing from a prominent, very visible perch. In my neighborhood where I grew up, the prominent perch was the television antennae mounted atop the brick chimney, the highest unobscured point in the area. Although the males do most of the singing and chasing intruders, females will also do both. Part of their pair bonding involves “countersinging” in which one of the pair repeats the song phrases of the other.
Their two common songs are both a series of loud, short, single notes. I would describe one as a repetitive “cheer” call, and the other as a series of calls that sounds like “wheet.”
The history of the northern cardinal as a nester on Long Island and the northeast is interesting. It apparently bred on Long Island and the lower Hudson Valley, the northern limit of its range, in the early 1900s, but disappeared from that area in the 1920s. The explanation given at that time was that the clearing of trees and thickets to make way for suburban development destroyed their breeding habitat. However, their spectacular rebound and spread northward in the 1940s and 1950s, well beyond their early 1900 northern limits and in spite of more intense development during those later decades, has cast doubt on the reason for their disappearance during the 1920s.
Their nest is usually constructed in the densest part of a shrub or hedge, most often only four to five feet off the ground. The nest has four layers. The first is rough bowl of weed and vine stems. This is lined with leaves and strips of bark. The third layer is composed of fine stems and grasses, and the innermost layer is made up of fine rootlets and grass.