Saturday, November 15, 2008

More on the Red Bird

“In richness of plumage, elegance of motion, and strength of song, this species surpasses all its kindred in the United States. It is known by the names of Red-bird, Virginia Nightingale, Cardinal-bird, and that at the head of the present article.” So began John James Audubon’s description of what he called the Cardinal Grosbeak, and which we today know by the common name, Northern Cardinal. Early residents or wandering naturalist sometimes tried to associate it with particular states, naming it the Virginia Cardinal and Kentucky Cardinal. It has also been known as the crested redbird, perhaps to distinguish it from the uncrested, Summer Tanager, also red and also southern.

Scientifically, the Northern Cardinal is Cardinalis cardinalis. There are three species in the genus, Cardinalis. Pyrrhuloxia, a bird of the southwest, looks like a gray cardinal with an oversized beak. Vermilion Cardinal is found in northern South America, principally Columbia and Venezuela.

Our Northern Cardinal has been through various scientific classifications and has had a variety of common names as we already know. It achieved its current common name designating it as “northern” in 1983. “Northern Cardinal” was intended to avoid confusion with seven other species which are also called cardinals, even though only one of those species is in the same genus. The only other cardinal which might be seen in North America is the Red-crested Cardinal which escapes regularly in Florida and California.

Most people would be hard pressed to name any of those other cardinals, but to avoid confusion our cardinal is called “northern,” because it is abundant in the South of North America. Confused? What does bother me is the complete lack of imagination and poetry by the academics who decide on names, but that is another column.

“Cardinal” comes from the Latin, cardinalis, meaning “important.” The root meaning was originally “hinge,” and evolved to mean “important” in the sense of something on which an object or idea depended, or hinged. Eventually “Cardinalis” came to designate an important (cardinal) church in Rome and a member of the College of Cardinals which elects the Pope. These high church officials wore (and wear) red robes and red hats. When the European colonists to North America encountered a bird with a red hat (crest) and red robes they called it “Cardinal,” in spite of their generally Protestant and anti-Catholic tendencies.

Bent summarizes the behavior of the cardinal this way: “In the cardinal we have a rare combination of good qualities, brilliant plumage, a rich and pleasing voice, beneficial food habits, and devotion to its mate and family.”

There are many stories about how solicitous the male is toward his mate, how tirelessly he cares for his family, and how strong is the instinct to care for and feed the young. The male has been described as a model husband and father.

There is the story of a pair of cardinals which lost its nest. They rebuilt. While the female incubated, the male began feeding four young robins, being as attentive as the robin parents. When his brood finally hatched, he fed both his own young and the robins’ young.

And then there is the photograph in the National Geographic “Song and Garden Birds of North America” which shows a cardinal feeding goldfish: “Hungry goldfish crowd the edge of a backyard pool in North Carolina as a cardinal passes out tidbits of food. For days the bird followed this strange routine. Alighting on the pool fence, he chirped. As the seven goldfish gathered, he fluttered down and began to feed them. In their eagerness they almost leaped from the water. Food gone, the bird flew off for more. Perhaps this foster parent had lost his own brood.”

But, I suspect that DNA studies will show, if they haven’t already, that cardinals, male and female, are just as free with their favors as are most other species, and that neither are models of marital fidelity. Most broods of most songbird species are genetically diverse. The female has cheated on her mate, and unless there are a lot of free roaming bachelors around, the likelihood is that the male has cheated on his mate as well. I would be surprised if the cardinal were any different.

When we have a bird we really like, we tend to accentuate its “virtues” and over look less desirable traits. This is especially true with the cardinal. The male cardinal is fiercely territorial. He and will attack any potential rival, and, as I just suggested, probably for good reason. He is so paranoid about the presence of another male in his territory that he will attack that male relentlessly. Sometimes the male attacks his own reflection in a window. For several summers we had a resident male who, day in and day out, banged against a bedroom window in a futile attempt to drive away the rival male. Such jealous rage betrays obvious insecurity about the fidelity of his mate. He was so persistent that it is a wonder he didn’t break his own neck, or otherwise do himself damage.

Many people tell me they don’t like Blue Jays because they are bullies and chase away the smaller birds. But watch your resident cardinal. Like most writers, Bent is admiring of the cardinal and only reluctantly reports their truculent side: “Although amiable at times, the cardinal is generally mildly dominant at feeding stations and sometimes decidedly belligerent ....”

I watched my resident cardinal at the feeder this morning. “Belligerent” is a good adjective to describe his interaction with the smaller sparrows on the ground. On one occasion, he even turned a Blue Jay timid.

Looking through my photographs of the cardinal, I do not have any where the cardinal is sharing the bird feeder amiably with other birds. He has sent them away. I have one winter photo with the cardinal on the tray of the bird feeder. It is snowing heavily. The white pines in the background are almost white with accumulated snow. On top of the feeder, looking timidly over the eave are three pigeons. Pigeons are big birds, roughly twice the size and four times the weight of a cardinal. But Mr. Cardinal was in no mood to share his feeder. They had to wait their turn.

I love the cardinal. He is gorgeous (so is she). He is hardy; you have to admire a creature that doesn’t flee south just because of a little snow and cold. He is a survivor.

But what I love most about the cardinal is that he and she sing any time during the year, even on a snowy day in January. You have to love that!

Good birding!

1 comment:

Sharon McDonnell said...

Thanks for a nice summary of the situation in Vermont plus the history and a bit of the psychology. I appreciate the depth and details.

Cardinal definitely a favorite bird of mine for its color-- Blue jay too despite bad public reputation.

Come see our website of with many bird photos-- most from Midwest, many from Vermont and others even further afield. Photographer is Gay Bumgarner- my mother- and I inherited her collection. I've been enjoying it and learning loads.

Websites like yours help me get informed and accurately keyword the images.
Go to:
in galleries type cardinal in search bar and you will get to see some real characters.

S. McDonnell
Gay Bumgarner Images
Peacham VT


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