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Anna B. Comstock

The Cardinal Grosbeak

Teacher's Story

THERE never lived a Lord Cardinal who possessed robes of state more brilliant in color than the plumage of this bird. By the way, I wonder how many of us ever think when we see the peculiar red, called cardinal, that it gained its name from the dress of this high functionary of the church? The cardinal grosbeak is the best name for the redbird because that describes it exactly, both as to its color and its chief characteristic, since its beak is thick and large; the beak is also red, which is a rare color in beaks, and in order to make its redness more emphatic it is set in a frame of black feathers. The use of such a large beak is unmistakable, for it is strong enough to crush the hardest of seed shells or to crack the hardest and driest of grains.

"What cheer! What cheer!

That is the grosbeak's way,

With his sooty face and his coat of red,"

sings Maurice Thompson. But besides the name given above, this bird has been called in different localities the redbird, Virginia redbird, crested redbird, winter redbird, Virginia nightingale, the red corn-cracker; but it remained for James Lane Allen to give it another name in his masterpiece, "The Kentucky Cardinal."

The cardinal is a trifle smaller than the robin and is by no means slim and graceful, like the catbird or the scarlet tanager, but is quite stout and is a veritable chunk of brilliant color and bird dignity. The only other bird that rivals him in redness is the scarlet tanager, which has black wings; the summer tanager is also a red bird, but is not so vermilion and is more slender and lacks the crest. The cardinal surely finds his crest useful in expressing his emotions; when all is serene, it lies back flat on the head, but with any excitement, whether of joy or surprise or anger, it lifts until it is as peaked as an old-fashioned nightcap. The cardinal's mate is of quiet color; her back is greenish gray and breast buffy, while her crest, wings and tail reflect in faint ways the brilliancy of his costume.

The redbird's song is a stirring succession of syllables uttered in a rich, ringing tone, and may be translated in a variety of ways. I have heard him sing a thousand times "tor-re'-do, tor-re'-do, tor-re'-do," but Dr. Dawson has heard him sing "che'-pew, che'-pew, we'-woo, we'-woo;" "bird-ie, bird-ie, bird-ie; tschew, tschew, tschew;" and "chit-e-kew, chit-e-kew; he-weet, he-weet." His mate breaks the custom of other birds of her sex and sings a sweet song, somewhat softer than his. Both birds utter a sharp note "tsip, tsip."


The cardinal grosbeak.

After Audubon Leaflet  No. 18.

The nest is built in bushes, vines or low trees, often in holly, laurel or other low evergreens, and is rarely more than six or eight feet above the ground. It is made of twigs, weed stems, tendrils, the bark of the grape vine and coarse grass; it is lined with fine grass and rootlets; it is rather loosely constructed but firm and is well hidden, for it causes these birds great anguish to have their nest discovered. Three or four eggs are laid, which are bluish white or grayish, dully marked with brown. The father cardinal is an exemplary husband and father; he cares for and feeds his mate tenderly and sings to her gloriously while she is sitting; and he works hard catching insects for the nestlings. He is also a brave defender of his nest and will attack any intruder, however large, with undaunted courage. The fledglings all have the dull color of the mother and have dark-colored bills. Their dull color protects the young birds from the keen eyes of their enemies while they are not yet able to take care of themselves. If the male fledglings were the color of their father, probably not one would escape a tragic death. While the mother bird is hatching the second brood the father keeps the first brood with him and cares for them; often the whole family remains together during the winter, making a small flock. However, the flocking habit is not characteristic of these birds, and we only see them in considerable numbers when the exigencies of seeking food in the winter naturally bring them together.

The cardinals are fond of the shrubbery and thickets of river bottoms, near grain fields, or where there is plenty of wild grass, and they only visit our premises when driven to us by winter hunger. Their food consists of the seeds of rank weeds, corn, wheat, rye, oats, beetles, grasshoppers, flies, and to some extent, wild and garden berries; but they never occur in sufficient numbers to be a menace to our crops. The cardinals may often be seen in the corn fields after the harvest, and will husk an overlooked ear of corn and crack the kernels with their beaks in a most dexterous manner. During the winter we may coax them to our grounds by scattering corn in some place not frequented by cats; thus, we may induce them to nest near us, since the cardinal is not naturally a migrant but likes to stay in one locality summer and winter. It has been known to come as far north as Boston and southern New York, but it is found in greatest numbers in our Southern States. Many nestlings were formerly taken, to ship in cages to Europe, but the National Association for Bird Protection has put a stop to this. In Ohio, no cardinal is allowed to be caged, and this same law should protect this beautiful bird in every Southern state, since it does not live long or happily in confinement. The cardinal's song is not at its best in a cage, but as the poet Naylor says:

"Along the dust-white river road,

The saucy redbird chirps and trills;

His liquid notes resound and rise

Until they meet the cloudless skies,

And echo o'er the distant hills."

Lesson XXXII

The Cardinal Grosbeak

Leading thought—The cardinal is the most brilliantly colored of all our birds and because of its color and song, it has been destroyed by thousands as cage birds. We should seek to preserve it as a beautiful ornament to our groves and grounds.

Methods—This work must be done by personal observation in the field. The field notes should be discussed in school. The effect of the whole lesson should be to stimulate an interest in protecting these beautiful birds. If possible, send for outline figures of the cardinal for the children to color; these outlines may be had at the cost of fifteen cents per dozen from the Audubon Society, 141 Broadway, New York City.


1. Do you know the cardinal? Why is it so called?

2. How many names do you know for this bird?

3. Is the cardinal as large as the robin? Is it graceful in shape or stout?

4. Is there any color except red upon it? If so, where?

5. What other vividly red birds have we and how can we distinguish them from the cardinal?

6. Describe the cardinal's crest and how it looks when lifted. Why do you think it lifts it?

7. Describe its beak as to color, shape and size. What work is such a heavy beak made for?

8. Is the cardinal's mate the same color as he? Describe the color of her head, back, wings, tail, breast.

9. Can you imitate the cardinal's song? What words do you think he seems to sing? Does his mate sing also? Is it usual for mother birds to sing? What other notes besides songs do you hear him utter?

10. Where does the cardinal usually build its nest? How high from the ground? Of what materials? Is it compact or bulky? How many eggs and what are their colors?

11. How does the father bird act while his mate is brooding? How does he help take care of the young in the nest?

12. How do the fledglings differ in color from their father? From their mother? Of what use to the young birds is their sober color?

13. What happens to the fledglings of the first brood while the mother is hatching the eggs of the second brood?

14. In what localities do you most often see the cardinals? Do you ever see them in flocks?

15. What is the food of the cardinals? What do they feed their nestlings?

16. How can you induce the cardinals to build near your home?

17. What do you know about the laws protecting the redbirds?

Supplementary reading—The Second Book of Birds, Miller, p. 83; True Bird Stories, Miller, p. 86; The Song of the Cardinal, Porter; Audubon Educational Leaflet No. 18.

"Upon the gray old forest's rim

I snuffed the crab-tree's sweet perfume;

And farther, where the light was dim, I saw the bloom

Of May apples, beneath the tent

Of umbrel leaves above them bent,

Where oft was shifting light and shade

The blue-eyed ivy wildly strayed;

The Solomon's seal, in graceful play,

Swung where the straggling sunlight lay

The same as when I earliest heard

The Cardinal bird."

—W. S. Gallagher.