At the Cornell Bird Laboratory, the Northern Cardinal is the “WTF?” bird. That is, hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t call them up and want to know what this gorgeous bird is in their backyard. It’s all red, and has a little peak on its head like a cockatoo and it sings really loud. Man, it must be like, ultra-rare or something, I’ve never seen anything like it before, and it, like has been flying around for several days now…
“It’s called a Cardinal.” The only reason why they’re calling is that most people aren’t birders, and more children, sadly, can identify a Charizard than a Grackle. With their assertive call, “Tu-Wheet! Tu-Wheet! Tu-Wheet! Cheerbird, cheerbird, cheerbird…” and gaudy coloring, they grab attention of even the most non-bird of people.
Or the caller has heard of one, but the Wisdom of the Street is that they’re really rare, or almost extinct, and they’re calling it in so they can get a reward.
They’re not. Common as dirt, really. The reason why you haven’t seen more than one at a time is their extreme territoriality: if you’re a male Cardinal, you don’t dare come within sight or earshot of another male Cardinal without a fight. Even hen Cardinals will fight, now and then, which leads to an old custom of putting a decal of a Cardinal on a window, to attract others. Sometimes they will tolerate each other in extreme conditions of cold or drought, or when between broods, but mostly, they aren’t social.
Which brings up the other part of the Cardinal equation: hen Cardinals are…shall we say, more subtle. Their red feathers are overlaid by olive-colored ones, and their bills are likely to be yellow or green, as well. The crests on both sexes are expressive: up for interest, down to rest. Oddly for a hen of any feather, they also sing, and will often be heard happily chirping away, while on its nest, waiting for Mr. Cardinal to come home and feed them a grub or something.They'll even sing duets! So cute! So you’ll probably see just one of them, unless you know what to look for.
They’re not shy of humans, and easy to feed, since they basically eat almost any kind of bird food. They especially like sunflower seeds, and a treat of peanut butter or nutmeats cut small. In a garden, they like holly berries, and watching Cardinals feed on a holly in the snow is one of the loveliest sights of Winter. People used to cage them like canaries, but it’s illegal, and they’re happier outside your house than in it. With a window feeder, and good feed, it's almost like they're pets, anyway, so?Towards Spring and in the Fall, the hens will gorge in advance of their brood, three or four brown-specked eggs in a low nest, preferably in a bramble bush or other undergrowth, which rules out heavy urban areas, but are just as happy in a park, or some overgrown vacant lots for them to nest in as The Forest Primeval, and so they’ve invaded the Rust Belt and any number of places where they haven’t been seen before. Once you have a pair in the backyard, expect them all year round for at least ten years.
And get yourself a bird book, OK? Sibley wrote some good ones.