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Blane Klemek column: Northern cardinals add color to treetops

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outdoors Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Pioneer
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Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

I'm often asked by readers who read my ramblings, "Isn't it hard to come up with topics to write about every week?"

My answers vary, but usually go something like, "No, not really; inspiration from the great outdoors comes easily."

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There are, however - truth be told - moments in all writers' lives when a profound and utterly baffling "writer's block" interrupts what normally is an easy thing to do; that is, write a good and interesting story. Moreover, as one would naturally expect, a writer's motivation comes from what he or she knows best: in my case, wildlife.

But sometimes I am inspired by the enthusiasm of those people I work with, or those others who have shared their stories with me, and not necessarily an experience of yours truly while trudging through the timber or personally observing something wild and write-worthy.

This past week I spent a day cooped up in a room filled with coworkers of mine. It was a constructive event, and one I was grateful to be a participant of. That said, the farthest thing from my mind at the time was a certain red bird that few people get to enjoy here in the North Country.

You see, a coworker friend of mine stopped me as I walked past him during our lunch break to tell me about a male cardinal that he and his wife have been enjoying at their feeders all winter long. I was delighted to listen to his story, especially about a bird that, though abundant across much of North America, is not, as of yet anyway, very common in northern Minnesota.

So, too, unbeknownst to him until perhaps now, he offered me all the inspiration I needed for this column's "bird-of-the-week," the northern cardinal.

Northern cardinals are medium-sized songbirds that are closely related to scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings and rose-breasted grosbeaks, to name just a few. There are only two species of the genus Cardinalis that occur in North America, and only the northern cardinal ranges this far north in the northern hemisphere, hence it's name, "northern" cardinal.

This delightful species of cardinal can be found everywhere east of the Mississippi River, including south from parts of South Dakota to Texas and into Mexico, as well as in portions of New Mexico and Arizona. Additionally, as some northern Minnesotans have come to appreciate, the range of cardinals appear to be moving northward. Cardinals are routinely observed throughout many of the Canadian provinces too.

The cardinal's apparent population expansion, which is possibly connected to gradual trends toward milder winters, is also thought to be related to the popularity of year 'round bird feeding. Northern cardinals, as is the case with any bird, are better able to cope with severe winter weather when food plentiful. The abundance of high quality birdseed will frequently keep many wild birds around, even in the wintertime, including cardinals.

Northern cardinals, about nine inches long, have a wingspan of about 12 inches. Aside from the bright crimson red feathers of the male and the characteristic head-crest possessed by both male and female birds, male northern cardinals also display a black face-mask. The female cardinal, like most other female passerines, is less brilliantly colored. Her plumage is a dull reddish brown and her mask is gray. Both sexes have quite large, conical-shaped bills that are red or orange as adults.

One of the most enjoyable traits of the northern cardinal is the male bird's territorial song. Their songs are distinctive, loud and clear. The rich, whistle-song is also fairly easy to imitate. Often written as "woit, woit, woit, chew-chew-chew" or, another common variant, "pichew, pichew, pichew, tiu-tiu-tiu-tiu-tiu-tiu" are phrases that are imagined with little difficulty, even if the song has never been heard before. And though it's the male cardinal that typically sings from the canopy of his territory, both sexes sing.

For anyone hearing a cardinal sing for the first time, the experience is not likely to be forgotten. For myself, my first cardinal song and observation occurred many years ago in the southeastern Minnesota town of Preston.

But it wasn't until the spring of 2008 at the DNR Forestry office north of Bagley, that I heard my first cardinal this far north in Minnesota. It was a bright red male, singing his heart out from the top of an oak tree.

Others, too, are observing cardinals. I receive periodic reports from people seeing cardinals in Bemidji and Crookston, plus I see and hear them in Park Rapids.

Cardinal courtship behavior is also notable. As already mentioned, both male and female birds sing. In addition, the courting cardinals perform bonding rituals that include such interesting behaviors as beak-to-beak feeding.

Male birds search for suitable food items, like seeds and fruits, and feed their mates from his beak to hers. Soon afterward mating takes place and the female builds a nest - usually in dense shrubs or low in a tree - and lays up to four eggs. Two broods, sometimes more, are regularly raised each summer, with the brood raising responsibilities shared by both parents.

The northern cardinal is a bird of uncommon brilliance, exceptional vocalizations, and interesting habits. Indeed, estimated at over 100 million birds globally, it's quite possible that in the coming years we will begin seeing more and more of these bright red birds in Minnesota's Northland as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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