My first Canadian lifer was the Red Bird, the “Devil’s Bird”, the Northern Cardinal. Here is a short tale of our first encounter as the kettle boiled for morning tea.

(Drawings and photographs are my own)

In an earlier post I wrote about the first bird, a European Dipper, that I can remember as being interestingly different to all the other little brown jobs of my childhood environment. My first lifer in fact, my “spark bird”. The years move along and a bit over forty years later I was standing on another continent in the kitchen of our new house in Montreal brewing the obligatory cup of tea without which no day can be said to have really started. I remember looking out of the window waiting for the kettle to boil …

First morning in the new house. The people we had bought it from were not gardeners so basically it was a largish square of lawn with trees around the edge. Right in front of the kitchen window was a very decrepit, aged wooden bird feeder on which the night before one of us had put some dry bread crusts. Something random anyway. Kettle burping away to one side. Tea leaves – no bags for us – in the pot, mugs laid out ready and then there in front of me was this suddenly this glorious blaze of bright red bird life.

“What is that?” My brain screamed. This is Montreal, not the tropics after all, nothing had the right to be that bright on a dull morning.

Of course, what it was was a male Northern Cardinal. Not at all a rare bird as we came to know, but WOW!! There we were, teetering on the edge of the rabbit hole that contains Canadian birding … and lots of birders who became our best friends as a consequence.

Cardinals are enormously popular and probably because of their colouring may well be the most recognized birds of all hereabouts. Certainly it caught my eye as a recent immigrant from a corner of the world where, it can’t be denied, an awful lot of birds are varying shades of brown. Nothing wrong with that, occasionally there is a little yellow or a white flash but rarely anything very bright. I am going to be shot down in flames for that statement but bear with me. It was immediately evident that this continent has creatures that are different to those I grew up with. Of course, as a biologist I was well aware of that in the abstract but coming face to face with this striking evidence of not-the-sameness was an eye-opener. I hate to think how many tons weight and $$$-worth cost of black sunflower seeds this tribe has swallowed in the quarter century since that first Cardinal said good morning.

Anyway, since that first Cardinal sighting there have been few days when we have not been visited in the garden by one or more of the birds, or on which we have not been sung to by them as we walk around. In the spring the males become very territorial and have a distinctive call that screams “spring is coming – this is my tree”. Given how common they are it’s hard to realize that only three or so generations ago they were rare to non-existent here but the species has gradually pushed its territory northwards and is well established. They are not migratory and manage to survive our very cold winters seemingly without difficulty. As environmental conditions slowly changed, Cardinals were able to extend their territory, facilitated by large numbers of people — at least 50 million of us according to the Cornell ornithology department — setting up bird feeders, while they and more have also been planting more and more native plants in their gardens, especially shrubs. Cardinals love shrubs, spending part of each day sheltering inside bare branches and, come spring, building their cup nests deep within the shrubbery. Warmer nights brought on by climate change were also a factor in their northward push.

It’s funny that for such a visually distinctive species, one that even people who claim to not like birds (yes, they exist) must be conscious of and have looked at more than once yet seem not to have understood what they are seeing. I recall one day when at work a colleague came into my office and asked about a strange bird she had seen. Did I know what it was? Her description was quite detailed and I suggested it was perhaps a female Cardinal – could that be it? Absolutely not, she was adamant. “I know Cardinals – I see them every day”. She was actually slightly offended that I might suggest such a thing … so I gently asked if she could get a photograph and a few days later she appeared with one. “There you are – not a Cardinal but I can’t find it in my bird book”. Dear reader it was indeed a female Cardinal – it’s just that females are not cardinal red. She didn’t believe me until I had shown her the difference in a field guide. People do make these mistakes too often. It’s in the same league as the everybody knows “fact” that American Goldfinch (Canaries to some) migrate south in winter when in actuality they are common year round residents that just happen to shed their bright yellow plumage once all that breeding stuff is behind them.

It’s possibly to distinguish some birds from others by differences in their red-ness. Cornell Lab of Ornithology has analyzed feathers from many cardinals and found that the birds’ brightness is a good indicator of a bird’s overall health and fitness. However, it was noted that city cardinals may eat a lot of berries from garden honeysuckle plants, which is an alien species. These birds were especially brightly coloured but generally were not in as good condition as their birds not able to feed on honeysuckle, because the berries are lower in fat and protein than many native berry-bearing shrubs. So urban cardinals’ redness isn’t necessarily a good a health indicator for female cardinals. So this big, butch bright red male struts his stuff and all the ladies go into a swoon over him. As J says “… so, like the excess hamburger effect in humans then?”

Message for gardeners than who want healthy Cardinals to visit. Get rid of those honeysuckles and replace them pretty well any other kind of berry-bush. Cardinal s really like berries, regardless of source. Consider, all species of dogwood, viburnum, elderberry, winterberry, wild grape, blackberry, mulberry, serviceberry and hackberry trees and staghorn sumac. Plus, of course, keep those feeders topped up with sunflower seeds.

One last observation – some people of a mawkish character will mention a common idea that, I paraphrase, if you see a Cardinal then you know an angel is near. Piffle, say I. Piffle and tosh. Everyone knows that angels wear white clothes while the Devil’s birds will always be clad in red. Cardinals are altogether too stylish to be anything but Devilish.

Note: this is NOT a Cardinal, this is a Scarlet Tanager – black wings and a different coloured beak. Compare to the two photos following it that are Cardinals.