During a recent trip to my daughter’s Maryland home, I watched northern cardinals fly to her backyard bird feeder to feast on the potpourri of seeds she put there each morning. The flame red males were in stark contrast to the early winter woodlands while the females, with their muted reddish brown colors, blended with the grays and browns of the winter landscape.
Male brilliance and lackluster females is a recipe for the success of this species throughout North America. The redder the male cardinal the more likely it is to be successful in raising young and the female knows this. Those males with the most intense red color are that way because of the food they eat. This means they have prime habitat that will provide the resources needed to raise their young. So when a female cardinal sees a brightly colored male, it is a sign that he is healthy and has established a good territory that will support reproductive success. The female cardinal’s muted colors are enable them to blend in when incubating eggs on the nest. This protective camouflage also helps in the success of this species.
Weeks later during a Maryland snow storm, cardinals visit my daughter’s feeder hanging in a snow covered oak tree. I also I enjoy the cardinals visiting my Florida feeder. The males are conspicuous amongst the green leaves of live oaks and palm trees while the females remain obscure. The northern cardinal is secure throughout North America proving that for this species, flamboyance is a virtue.