From My WindowIssue Date: August 9, 2018
By Jane Thibodeau Martin,
I have enjoyed seeing the multitudes of birds around our homesite, including some birds I didn't expect " Indigo Buntings and lots and lots of Goldfinches in their beautiful breeding plumage. What I haven't seen yet, and hope to, is my favorite Wisconsin bird, the Cardinal.
Our woodlot would seem like good habitat, so perhaps this winter when visibility is better I will be able to see some of these fascinating birds. Their red color stands out so bright against the snow, it is as unexpected as looking out a window in January on a grey day and catching sight of a beautiful rose poking out of a snowdrift. That got me wondering why male Cardinals, alone among our local birds, is so brightly colored in winter and why it is red.
It would seem being so gaudy and easy to spot against green foliage would make Cardinals more visible to typical bird predators, especially hawks. But maybe hawks can't see colors? However, a quick check revealed that not only can hawks and most other birds active in the daytime see all the same colors we do; they can see additional colors due to their keen UV vision. So hawks can see the brilliant cardinals which may explain their typical low, undulating flight and their propensity to keep to the thicker woods where it is harder for hawks to fly.
This may also be why some fruits which depend on being eaten by animals, especially birds, for seed dispersal are red " think of raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, and cherries among others. Once the berries are ripe and their seeds are ready to travel, the bright red color serves to attract their bird "seed shipping service."
Turns out the only reason scientists have found for the bright red color of males is to attract the ladies. Females in studies consistently chose bright red males over those who had duller colors. The bright red color is an indicator of a healthy bird, who has found rich food sources and will be more likely to be able to defend a territory and provide for nestlings. The specific nutrient which provides the raw material in the Cardinal's diet for red feathers is carotenoids (named because carrots are a good source of this nutrient,) and among the best sources for carotenoids is dogwood berries. Another source is Amur Honeysuckle fruits, but while those berries are high in carotenoids they are low in protein, so they are not as healthy a diet for birds. (And as an aside, Honeysuckle is among the most difficult plants to contain, or kill, and can run rampant quickly. It was common to hear about people complaining about the invasive plant in Oklahoma, despite its heavenly flower scent.)
Sunflower seeds are excellent sources of food for Cardinals, but contain no carotenoids, so birds eating a strictly sunflower seed diet will be duller than those eating a high carotenoid diet. There are also reports of an occasional albino (white) cardinal, and a yellow cardinal became an internet sensation earlier this year due to a rare but scientifically understood genetic abnormality. (I was tempted to think this unusual bird was the result of creative computer editing, but further research convinced me it wasn't " it's just such a rare occurrence that pictures of it are very scarce.)
It isn't just the Cardinal's red color that is so attractive; both the males and females are lovely singers. If they are around, you will more likely hear them much more often than you can see them.
Some people believe that seeing a Cardinal close by is a messenger from a loved one in heaven. I'm not sure I believe that, but when I see one of these beautiful birds, it often prompts a thought of a loved one to me also, because if heaven is all things beautiful and good, surely it is full of Cardinals.
You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: Janiethibmartin@gmail.com.
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