Feb 07 2008
Spring wants to come early to Pittsburgh but it can’t make up its mind. Two days ago it was 60oF. In two more days the temperature will dip to 11oF.
The birds are conflicted about the season too. In winter, northern cardinals feed peacefully together as pictured here by Marcy Cunkelman, but in spring they get quite aggressive and territorial.
This morning during my walk to work I saw three cardinals – two males and a female – having a dispute in a front yard on Forbes Avenue. All of them were making loud chip calls and chasing each other in circles. Perhaps one of the males was trying to lure the lady away. No more peaceful coexistence for them!
In spring, cardinals literally “see red” when a rival appears on the scene. During the nesting season they will even attack a mirror, trying to rid the area of that red bird in the glass.
They warm up to courtship with other behaviors too. If you watch at a bird feeder, you may see the male pick up seeds and feed his lady – a welcome change from his cranky attitude toward her in December.
You might even be lucky enough to see them counter-sing.
In most songbird species only the males can sing, but female cardinals don’t have this limitation. When the pair counter-sings, they perch in different areas of their territory. First one sings a phrase, then the other repeats it. The first sings again and the other repeats again. The first singer may alter the phrase. The other repeats the new phrase.
Cardinal pairs may spend a good part of the day counter-singing but you have to see them doing it to know it’s a pair instead of two males claiming nearby territories.
Counter-singing is a beautiful thing to watch. I have only been lucky enough to see it once.