Big Red: Cardinal population booms in Ohio

Cardinals mate for life and remain together even when it’s not breeding season.

Published in 2016, The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Ohio is not a casual read. A true tome totaling nearly 600 pages, the book is an inch and a half thick and weighs 6.5 pounds (don’t drop it on your toes).

It’s the go-to source for professional ornithologists and serious amateur birders in the Buckeye State for all things bird-related concerning the more than 200 species nesting here. It has some encouraging things to say about the northern cardinal, Ohio’s state bird (and that of six other states, too).

For instance, the atlas estimates the number of singing male cardinals in the state at a whopping 2.1 million, with the cardinal population as a whole having increased 1.1% per year since 1966. Yet as common as cardinals are, whether viewed on Christmas cards this time of year or on birdfeeders year-round, they have not always been numerous in Ohio.

When our state was first being settled and the virgin forests cleared, cardinals were found primarily in the southern half of Ohio, expanding their population north during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Today, the familiar red birds are found statewide, but are most numerous in southwest counties where National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Counts can exceed 2,000 individuals.

Unlike many other songbirds, cardinals are the paragon of fidelity. Not only are they monogamous for life, or at least until their partner dies, they even stay together throughout the year, not just during breeding season.

In preparation for breeding, both sexes begin singing as early as mid-to-late winter. The singing is sometimes solo, but more often counter-singing — one mate begins a song that the other finishes. You could say they complete each other’s sentences, the ultimate sign of both devoted avian and human couples.

Once spring arrives, the male begins courtship feeding the female by bringing her tidbits of food, their beaks touching briefly — a kiss? — as she accepts the morsel. Due to her muted protective coloration, the female has exclusive control of nesting. She selects the site, usually in dense shrubbery or a brushy field border, constructs the nest, then performs the nearly two weeks of incubation required to hatch her two to five eggs.

During that time, the male isn’t just free to go hang out with the boys. He remains somewhere close with an ear cocked, awaiting his mate’s call for food when she grows hungry.
Once the eggs hatch, both male and female bring the nestlings food, which is almost exclusively insects, due to their high protein content. After about 11 days, the fledglings leave the nest, and the male is in charge of feeding them on the ground. The female then immediately begins a second nesting, producing as many as three or four broods of young cardinals per season in Ohio — hence the high population.

The next Ohio breeding bird atlas is scheduled to be published in another 20 years; what might it have to say about cardinals? Jim McCormac, one of five editors of the current edition, speculates.

“It is safe to say that our ‘redbird’ will be holding strong when the next atlas appears. Adaptability, tolerance of a variety of habitats, and a knack for cohabiting with people should ensure that the cardinal remains abundant into the future.”

In other words, Big Red will continue to boom in the Buckeye State.

W.H. “Chip” Gross is Ohio Cooperative Living’s outdoors editor and a member of Consolidated Cooperative.