Are cardinals brighter in winter?

April 12, 2009
It It's not your imagination, Northern Cardinals are a brighter red in the winter. Photo by Adam Bender via Birdshare.
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There’s something stunning about a bright-red male cardinal against a snowy backdrop. Is it just the contrast that makes them look so brilliant, or are they really brighter in winter? The answer has to do with some peculiarities in the way the birds molt.

Like many birds, Northern Cardinals molt their feathers and grow new ones in late summer and early fall, after the breeding season is over and food is abundant. During that time people often comment about how ratty cardinals look, because so many of them molt their head feathers all at once, rendering the birds bald.

But even after its head is covered in feathers again, a newly molted male cardinal isn’t at his brightest. Many of his feathers, especially on the neck and back, are tipped with gray. During fall and winter, these tips slowly wear off, revealing more and more brilliant red. The birds reach the peak of brilliance right when they are selecting a mate. Against snow-covered conifers, it’s a feast for our eyes, too.

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