Sunday, April 12, 2009

Bright, Flashing Cardinals

Springtime in the Hill Country brings an explosion of color to the fields and roadsides. In my yard there are bluebonnets growing between the rocks, beneath the trees, even amongst the thickest patches of grass. Giant, scarlet and pink and white amarylis crowd around my back door, their flowers as large as dinner plates. Bluebirds bathe each morning in the pond outside my bedroom window, perching on the branches, dipping their heads beneath the water then throwing them back so the droplets trickle through their feathers. Sometimes they leap into the shallow area of the pond and sit in the water, ruffling their feathers, washing away the winter grime.

As I walk through my house and glance out each window I see bright flashes of red fly past. The flashes belong to the brilliantly-colored feathers of the male cardinals. Sometimes the red looks scarlet with a faint hint of purple, and sometimes it is so bright it is almost orange. The males also have a black mask across their face, a patch of black that surrounds their eyes, goes across the bridge of their nose and beneath the chin. Their beaks are a glowing orange. The females are just as beautiful to me with their cinnamon-brown feathers brushed with red and their bright orange beaks. The softer color may be a type of disguise that helps her hide her children from predators. Both males and females have a crest on top of their head that looks like a little pointy hat.

Around my house, there are so many cardinals that sometimes it looks like a cloud of red when I step outside. It is mating season and I often see the males chasing each other through the gardens as they try to build their homes. The brightest colored males are generally the most successful in the chase--they get the girls and they get the sunflower seeds I leave on all the tables! The increased food is what keeps their colors so bright.

Once, last week, I saw a female sitting by herself on a branch in the crape myrtle tree outside my bedroom. There was a male perched on the edge of the table, digging through the seed dish. He grabbed a seed in his sharp beak then joined the female on the branch and fed her the seed. The female ducked her head demurely and opened her tiny orange beak to accept the gift. It was so sweet, so tender.

Both male and female cardinals love to talk and sing! The sounds of the cardinals fill the air from sunrise to sunset and sometimes in between. A few nights ago I was outside looking at the moon and I could hear a cardinal calling in a nearby tree. The make many sounds, but my favorite is one that sounds like "pretty, pretty, pretty." They repeat this sound five or six times, and if a cardinal is singing the pretty song nearby while I'm gardening, I answer back. Sometimes, when I answer, the bird will pause, and I imagine the young bird cocking its head from side to side, wondering what on earth I'm trying to say with my awkward, garbled sounds, but he or she will always continue a few seconds later. They will say the words, "pretty, pretty, pretty," pause, then repeat the words all over again.

Baby cardinals do not start to sing until they are at least two months old. Their feathers are brown and their beaks black, and they stay very quiet. This could also be a form of protection. Gradually, their beaks grow purple, then scarlet, and their feathers start to change. By the time they celebrate their first Christmas, they begin to resemble their colorful parents.

It is also during the winter time that the parents and babies join the rest of the flock, which can reach up to a thousand birds! In spring, like now, they spend most of their time chasing each other around, establishing their territory, building their homes where they can raise their young families and keep them safe.

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