Claude and Claudia -- by Kenneth Turner Blackshaw
These are hard times in the heart of this island winter, and we have ice all about us. But at least most of us have warm homes to go to and plenty to eat. This is not true for our feathered friends. Even so, they brighten our spirits by just being there.
Today I looked out my window and the cherry tree in my yard was festooned with bright red male Cardinals. These are officially known as 'Northern Cardinals' now, Cardinalis cardinalis. When I was growing up, they were 'Richmondena cardinalis. So the birdwatchers in the sky have changed their Genus. Fine with me, since now they are a 'double'. That is, the Genus and species names are the same. I collect sightings of doubles. My favorite is Alle alle -- the Dovekie.
The Cardinal's Latin and also 'common' name come from their bright red color which made people think of the red robes worn by important church officials of that rank. Another bird named after a church rank is the Prothonotary Warbler, which wears a brilliant orange cloak, as does the Vatican official with that title.
People often speak to me about seeing so many Cardinals at once at this time of year, and they are right to do so. When breeding season starts, and the birds' thoughts turn to 'love', one male Cardinal really can't stand the presence of another and all kinds of fights break out. But for now, they are social. This change in behavior fascinates scientists because most Cardinals stay within a few miles of where they are hatched for their entire life. So it is the same group of birds, year-round. Now they get along. Later on, the back yard just isn't big enough!
When I was growing up, our winter trees were missing these flashy red ornaments. My only Cardinals were in books. We didn't find them for Nantucket's first Christmas Bird Counts in the fifties and they only appeared in small numbers during the mid-sixties. They have gradually become more ubiquitous. Our most recent count actually produced 301 Cardinals on Nantucket -- amazing.
Is this 'global warming' or something else? Well, Arthur Cleveland Bent, whose birding 'life histories' are a part of every serious bird student's lexicon, writes about the Cardinal's spread northward through the early part of the 20th century and attributes it mainly due to the increase in bird feeding by us humans. So climate changes may have played a role, but it's mainly our desire to have birds around our homes that have brought Cardinals to these latitudes.
And it is a wonderful thing that we have. Cardinals are a charming addition to our landscape. I mentioned the red ones earlier -- the males. Cardinals are sexually dimorphic. That is, you can look at them and tell the boys from the girls. The females are attractive in their own fashion, but less flashy then the beaus. Now I should point out the reason for the title of this article. I had a friend in Colorado who always called the female Cardinals 'Claudia' -- for Claudia Cardinale, the classic movie star. So, it was not too much of a stretch to make the males 'Claude's.
The female Cardinal is shaped like the male. She is a buffy brown color, blending to red on the wings and tail. Both are a bit smaller than a Robin, and have crests. The males are red all over. Both sexes show black around the eyes and throat. Their huge, orange, industrial-strength bills stand out. Bird banders quickly learn to respect this part of a Cardinal's anatomy. Banding Cardinals gives us a clue as to how long they live. Recoveries of dead birds tell us that most Cardinals don't make it past their sixth year, but one super Cardinal made it to age 13!
Cardinals start to think about nesting even now, triggered by the cycle of increasing daylight. I heard the first Cardinal in song over in the State Pines on January 30. Typically they perch atop a tree, allowing them to project their song over a wide territory. It's a wonder to me that more of them don't get picked off by hawks. I mean, imagine -- you are bright red, you sing loudly, why not put yourself in the most exposed spot to do it? Well, it works for Cardinals. Actually the Claudias sing too.
To bring Cardinals to your yard, provide them with sunflower seeds. This is their favorite, and also one that their big beaks can handle easily. If you do feed them, you will notice they are often the first to arrive in the morning and the last to be at the feeder as night falls. Perhaps this is their condescension to being bright red. Part of their courtship ritual is the offering of food, one to the other, so see if this happens around your feeders.
Enjoy their color, their social interaction, and their wonderful 'What Cheeeeeer' song, and remember, spring is coming.
If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.
To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.