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Cardinals and Grosbeaks

north male rose breasted

The cardinals and grosbeaks belong to the subfamilies Cardinalinae, of the finch family (Fringillidae), which is the largest of all North American bird families. (Some researchers include the cardinals and grosbeaks with the Emberizidae, the buntings and tanagers).

Cardinals and grosbeaks are New World birds, ranging from central Argentina as far north as central Canada. They live primarily in temperate zone woodlands, and have adapted to life around humans, whose help (in the form of birdseed) has helped cardinals extend their range north to Canada.

The name "grosbeak" is descriptive: these birds have thick, sturdy beaks, which help them crack open seeds. Their diet also includes blackberries, strawberries, insects, spiders, bees, corn, snails, slugs, and earthworms. Cardinals have been seen drinking maple sap from holes left by sapsuckers. The pine grosbeak has special throat pouches in which it transports food.

The males of cardinals and grosbeaks are brightly colored; females are duller. Pine grosbeaks (Pinicola enucleator) and evening grosbeaks (Hesperiphona vespertina) remain in their northern or high-mountain habitats year-round, but have been known to migrate out of these areas if food is in short supply. Three species of North American grosbeak—the rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheuctinus ludovicanus), black-headed, and blue grosbeak (Guiraca caerulea)—prefer southern areas, and the rose-breasted will migrate as far south as Venezuela and Peru come winter.

In some species, including the cardinal (Cardinais cardinalis), the female builds the nest and incubates the eggs without help from the male. In others, males and females share in these efforts. Between 2-5 eggs are laid. Young cardinals fledge quickly, leaving the nest when 10 or 11 days old. This rapid development allows the cardinal to raise multiple clutches in a season, up to as many as four; the male cares for the hatchlings while the female incubates the next clutch.

Male cardinals and grosbeaks are renowned singers. The cardinal has at least 28 different songs. Male rose-breasted grosbeaks will compete for a female by hovering over her and singing a long, liquid, robin-like song; the winner of that courtship will sing while he is helping incubate the eggs.

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