Clellie Lynch: A conclave of cardinals

"Not to conform to any other color

is the secret to being colorful.

He shocks us when he flies

like a red verb over the snow.

The Cardinal," Henry Carlile

By Clellie Lynch

EAST CHATHAM, N.Y, — A spotlight full moon slips behind the spiky trees on the hill to the west just as a glimmer of pink smears the sky to the east. An apricot sun creeps higher and higher; the sky turns bright blue. The skin of snow glistens and glitters. The day looks inviting, but we are not fooled by Mother Nature, it is cold, brutally cold. The new year has skated in.

Outside the bedroom window, a brilliant red cardinal, always the first to feed in the morning and last to dine in the evening, appears on a branch near the feeders and, in a moment, he flies to the platform. Another cardinal appears and then a third, a fourth and a fifth — all males. In a little while they are joined by females. They feast and fly back to a nearby shrub. At one point seven males and five females perch on the bare branches, creating a living Christmas tree.

I check the feeders outside the kitchen window and find eight more cardinals, here the females outnumber the males. Soon they are joined by hungry chickadees, titmice, and a nuthatch or two. A belligerence of bluejays makes a noisy appearance, taking over where the cardinals were and scaring off the smaller birds. The mourning doves ignore the bluejays.

In this very cold weather, the birds are frantic when feeding, flying in faster, rapidly grabbing seeds and feasting continually. Suddenly the resident turkeys, about 30 or so, rush down from the hill and scatter all the birds as they peck and peck and then retreat to under the pine trees, their iridescent feathers gleaming in the sunlight. For the last few days the puffy turkeys run everywhere, heads forward, beards bobbing against their breasts. Rushing perhaps to keep warm.

Beloved for beauty, song

But the bird of today is the cardinal, once known as the eastern cardinal, Richmondena cardinalis. Bent in his "Life History of North American Birds" (1968) describes the cardinal as " omnipresent, semi-domesticated and beloved for its beauty and song." He includes seven subspecies, differentiated by size of bird, of beak, of color variation, all features determined by examining skins. This process has been replaced by comparing DNA and, although there may be superficial differences, they are now grouped as one with the taxonomic of Cardinalis cardinalis; common name, the northern cardinal.

From early days, this avian was difficult to classify. Scientists looked at that thick red beak and added this bird to the grosbeak family. In texts from the 1840's, look for the name "cardinal grosbeak" to find an entry.

The vernacular name has morphed from cardinal grosbeak, to Kentucky cardinal, to Virginia red-bird, to eastern cardinal, and now northern cardinal. The latinate name has shifted from Loxia cardinalis, to Fringilla cardinalis, to Richmondena cardinalis and has been declared official (for the moment) by the American Ornithological Society as Cardinalis cardinalis.

The bird, though southern in origin was named Richmondena, not for the southern city of Richmond in Virginia, but for Charles Wallace Richmond who lived and worked in D.C. and studied ornithology as an avocation. He spent years creating a card index of all known birds. helping to regularize the taxonomy. With the name change, Mr. Richmond remains a mere footnote in some ornithology texts.

The name "cardinal" comes from the Latin cardo, meaning hinge, that upon which an idea rests, turns or depends, hence "important." From this, the Catholics bestowed the name "cardinal" on those prelates concerned more with the philosophy of the church than with pastoral duties. These men were distinguished from the ordinary black robes by scarlet garments. This color led to baptizing the "redbird," as many of the early settlers called this bird found only in North America, the cardinal.

Although they are quite common here in the Berkshires, they were not always so. Hoffmann in "A Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York" (1904) describes the "Eastern cardinal" as a rare visitor. He does note that at that time it was a permanent resident in Northern New Jersey. St. James in his "Annotated List" (2017) reports that the cardinal was first seen in the Berkshires in 1927, but didn't breed here until 1958.

Since then, the population has exploded. They are common, noticeable and announce themselves with a "rich sympathetic voice." Once the bird has settled in near your house, you will see and hear them all year long.

Both genders sing frequently. The song and calls have been transliterated by many. When you listen, is the bird saying: "de-ar, de-ar, come he-ar, he-re, he-re, quick quick, hurry hurry hurry?" or perhaps "cheer, cheer, purty, purty, purty?" Sibley's transcription is: "woit, woit, woit, chew chew chew."

Attacks reflection

Cardinals do not migrate. They are quite territorial, though, and will aggressively defend their territory, even to the point of flying at and pecking at their own reflection in a window, not realizing that this is only a mirror image, not another cardinal invading their territory. Once the bird-brained creature is intent on getting that red invader to leave, it is difficult to get it to stop.

So familiar is this bird that seven states have designated the crested, bright red bird as their state bird. Some myths claim that the radiantly red cardinal is from the spirit world, that someone you knew who passed away has come to visit. This is a bit scary when I have a conclave of 20 or more cardinals visiting the feeders daily!

Haints or not, I will take these birds at face value and begin my year list with the cardinal. Happy New Year and great birding to all!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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