Birds of Brooklyn: Northern Cardinal - Brooklyn Botanic Garden
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Birds of Brooklyn: Northern Cardinal

The northern cardinal is one of the most beautiful and recognizable birds in North America and a common resident of the Garden. It is a nonmigrant species, and every cardinal we see at BBG was likely born and raised right here. The bright red males are especially striking in the winter against a backdrop of snow, and you will spot them this month feeding on berries and seeds. The cardinal is an early riser and starts looking for food even before the sun comes up.

As spring approaches, cardinals become more vocal. Listen for them when we start to get some warm, sunny days in the coming weeks. They are among the first birds to pipe up. The male does most of the singing, but sometimes the female also sings. This is unusual—in most species only the males sing.

Nest building, done mostly by the female with some help from the male, takes about three days and starts at the end of April or in early May. Cardinal nests are somewhat sloppy affairs constructed in the lower branches of dense shrubs. It takes about 25 days for cardinals to lay and incubate eggs and raise nestlings. The young still require another two weeks of care once they leave the nest, and then they are on their own. A pair of cardinals nest at least twice each year, sometimes three or even four times.

The cardinal is the state bird of seven states. No other bird holds this distinction. It gets along among people very well and seems to like parks and urban gardens like BBG. An attractive bird and an inspiration to people, this species has a very bright future.

The Birds of Brooklyn series looks at some of the most familiar and fascinating birds that call Kings County their habitat.

Joe Giunta has led bird walks for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Nature Conservancy and the South Fork Natural History Society and taught a beginning birding course for Summer Fest. He has birded extensively in the U.S., Panama, Belize, Venezuela, and Costa Rica.

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Image, top of page: Lee Patrick