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Cardinals once lived in the deep south

By Stan Tekiela

With winter fast approaching my mind turns to survival. Not my survival, but the amazing ways that wildlife survives the coming months of cold, snow and seemingly endless dark nights ahead.

For many of our bird friends, they survive winter by migrating. They pick up stakes and fly south. Some go only far enough to escape the icy grip of winter, while others make the extra effort and head for the tropics of Central and South America. I've been to this part of the world in the middle of winter and it's not a bad choice at all.

Some critters hibernate the winter away. I know many of us feel like hibernating each winter and some actually do a version of human hibernation, tucked away in our warm and comfortable homes. Meanwhile Eastern Chipmunks, Woodchucks and bears are deep in underground dens snoozing the winter away. Not a bad way to spend a nasty winter.

Birds such as our beloved Northern Cardinal are often associated with winter. We often have this romantic vision in our heads of a brightly colored male cardinal, in all of his resplendent glory, perched on a snow laden evergreen branch while snowflakes drift past. But what if I told you that this is not a traditional scene? What if, cardinals in snow is a relatively new occurrence?

The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is actually a southern species of bird. It is more accustom to resting on a palm branch in the Florida sunshine than it is on the frozen, snow-filled branches of your backyard trees. It is common all across the south from Florida across the Gulf Coast states to Texas and south into Mexico.

It has only been relatively recent that this bird has moved northward. In many northern states such as Maine, New York, Michigan and Minnesota, this bird just started showing up in the past 50-75 years. State records indicate a slow but steady expansion of the cardinal in a general north and west direction. The reason for this expansion is not known but there are several good theories.

Many attribute backyard bird feeding to the expansion of the cardinal. The extra food offered in our feeders was just the edge this bird needed to expand its range northward into the frozen states. Backyard bird feeding didn't really start until after World War II. Before this, very few people had the extra income to afford purchasing food just to feed the birds. They also didn't have much leisure time to just enjoy looking at birds.

Others believe that the construction of large bridges spanning across open bodies of water such as the Ohio River, which were natural barriers for cardinals, might have fueled the expanding range of the cardinal. These birds are not good long distance flyers. They need to stop and take a break now and then, so wide rivers and the Great Lakes were natural road blocks for these birds.

Whatever the reason they are expanding their range, more than doubling their range in the past 100 years. Even today the cardinal is still marching northward. Many of the northern states are just now seeing the arrival of the Northern Cardinal. Once these birds are established in a region they are there to stay so if you have cardinals coming to your backyard, enjoy them this winter. Until next time...

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the US to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and twitter.com or you can contact him on his web page at www.naturesmart.com


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