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Cardinals in Snow

Why do these home-bodies endure the ­rigors of a northern winter when they could fly south?

All birds are migratory to some extent. Some may travel great distances twice annually, from North to South America. Others may regularly move, as the seasons turn, from Canada to Mexico and farther. A few species merely move southward as cold weather advances. Still others wander about in search of a good food supply.
    A smaller number do not travel much at all. They may spend their entire lives within a mile of their birthplace, expanding their range only as the population increases. The cardinal is one of these stay-at-homes.
    Why do these colorful birds, which one would expect to live in the tropics, stay with us all the year? Why do they endure the rigors of a northern winter when they could fly south?
    The answer is buried deep in the evolutionary past, within the climatic changes and continental drifts that have occurred through the ages.
    Cardinals are well equipped to endure the north winter. Their strong, thick bills can readily crack the large seeds that persist through winter and on the bulky sunflower seeds we feed them. They overcome the shortening of winter days, too, by staying up late. They visit the feeder until it is quite dark, long after the other birds have retired.
    At one time, however, to picture cardinals in snow would not have seemed appropriate. Basically a southern bird, the cardinal has the center of its abundance in Dixieland, in the Carolinas and Gulf States. (Audubon painted them among a spray of magnolia flowers.) Since then, the bird has been spreading its range northward, a process much enhanced by global warming. Unknown north of New York City in Colonial times, the cardinal is now established along the Canadian border.


Bay Weekly readers voted John Best Artist on the Bay in the 2015 Best of the Bay readers’ poll.