A female Cardinal sitting on a nest

The standard pattern for temperate zone songbirds is that males are flashy songsters while females generally only have repertoire of less exciting chips, contatct notes and alarm calls. Northern Cardinals are are one of the exceptions to this rule however with females sharing the ability to sing a variety of songs similar to their males counterparts. How they use these songs is quite different, though. Males sing loudly from high perches while showing off their bright red plumage while females do it more quietly from inside the cover of shrubs. The intent of the Male’s song is well know, to announce its territory, show its fitness and attract mates, but the reasons behind the female song is less well understood. It may be used for deepening pair bonds, communicating location to mates, or serve as a territorial warning against other females.

Though I have known about the singing abilities of female Cardinals for a while, I had never actually seen one doing it until recently. For the past two summers I have had the good fortune to have a Cardinals build a nest in a bush right outside my bedroom window. And the venetian blinds I use as shades allow me to crack an opening from which I can peek at the nest without disturbing them. A few days ago I woke up to sounds of a Cardinal singing quietly from the vicinity of the nest, so I got up to take a look. What I saw was the female standing on the edge of the nest looking down on her chicks while singing a low whistling song. Though I knew it was an anthropomorphic thought as I was having it, as I looked on it was hard to escape the impression that I was watching  a mother gently singing lullaby to her babies.

– Ron Payne