The Cardinal comes calling

By Kate Crowley
By mid-January we are beginning to feel the oppression of too little color in our lives. The scene outside the windows is white/brown/gray, with some green thrown in if you are lucky enough to have conifers on your property. One of the ways we deal with this monotone world is by encouraging the blooms of Hyacinths – those ubiquitous boxed bulbs found in stores before the Christmas holidays. I have two from previous years that have refused to regenerate new flowers, though they are supposed to.
Mike on the other hand has one plant in his office that he started from a seed given to him by a cousin and said to be from his Great Grandmother. For two years in a row now, it has produced the most beautiful coral/orange blossoms – 7 this year! I have a new Hyacinth my mom gave me this November which has just opened its first flower – in a gorgeous red and white stripe pattern. Since Mike’s office has east facing windows and apparently the right touch with water and fertilizer, I am turning the care and management of these seasonal flowers over to him.

But, this is all a lead up to my real topic, which is the wonderful shock we all feel when we see a flash of RED outside our windows in these colorless winter months. Red wakes us up; makes us take notice; stops us in our tracks. It is seen on the heads of our woodpeckers (Hairy, Downy, Red-bellied, and Pileated) and they have a special fiery glow about them. Occasionally we get an invasion of Common Redpolls; small finches from the far north. They have a cranberry colored cap on their heads, that doesn’t light up like those of the woodpeckers, but is a cheerful color nonetheless. We haven’t seen any yet this winter, but we continue to hold out hope.

The misnamed Purple Finches also have a rosy red tone to their breast feathers and the males have even more of this reddish color on their heads. They have come and gone to our feeders in the past couple weeks, in groups ranging from 5-14. Even though their red doesn’t jump out like some others, it is appreciated just the same.

The real showstoppers are the Northern Cardinals! These are not regular visitors around our place – we might see one or two periodically during the year, but then they move on. This week we have had both a male and female arrive at our sunflower seed platform midday and at dusk. Such a beautiful pair of birds; the male in all his flaming glory with accents of black on his face;
the female a subtle shade of olive gray with tinges of red on her wings and tail. Both have a reddish orange beak, but hers has more punch because of her other subtle colors.

Northern Cardinals really were a bird of the south for a long, long time, but over the decades they have gradually advanced into the northern regions. Since 1989, Feeder Watch (which I have written about many times) counts by people in Minnesota, Michigan, Maine and southeastern Canada have shown a measureable increase in the percentage of Cardinals reported. This increase and movement seems to match a similar increase in the number and prevalence of bird feeding stations in Suburbia. In the same period of time, people have become more aware and interested in landscaping their yards to benefit wildlife, planting shrubs and trees that provide shelter and food throughout the year. This has been a winning combination for all concerned.

The red we see in the Cardinal’s feathers is a pigmentation created by carotenoids, found in various plants and fruits. The birds eat these, especially in the fall when they go through a feather molt. There is also a gene that is related to the red pigmentation. A mutation in that gene causes the feathers to turn yellow. Interestingly, carotenoids also cause Goldfinch to be yellow. When these pigments interact with melanin they produce the olive green colors seen on females of some species.
Studies have shown that those male Northern Cardinals with the brightest red feathers are more attractive to females, who recognize a well fed male, which means he has access to better territories and is likely to be a better provider for the female and her young. This is known as sexual selection and is the reason the brightest red feathers get passed on to the next generation.

We have had blue skies and Blue Jays, but what I most want to see, what my eyes long to see is Red, the color of the fluid that flows through our veins and sustains life.


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