Northern Cardinal

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(HOST) Once rare in the northeast, cardinals are now commonly found in New England. Commentator Ted Levin considers how this colorful bird found its way to Vermont.

(LEVIN) I heard the slurred whistle of a cardinal rising from a backyard in suburban Hanover the other day. The bird sang to its mate, who sat in the top of a shrub, visible from where I stood, a rich olive-brown with red-tinged wings and tail. Her red crest was fully erect, a response (I suppose) to the serenade, which con- tinued to cascade out of the backyard.

I have never seen a cardinal in Thetford Center, at least not in Coyote Hollow. We’re too wooded, too wild, though I do fill bird feeders all year long.

In 1791, when William Bartram wrote Travels, an account of his explorations of the Southeastern wilderness, the cardinal was a bird of the dank, moss-clad South, splashing color from cane- brakes, thickets, clearings and river edges. At that time, the cardinal was unknown in the North.

By the late 1800s, the cardinal had become a fashionable cage bird. Thousands were sent to the Northeast and to Europe, where they perched like canaries in wire baskets, a sad vestige of Wild America. The incarceration ended with the passage of the Mig- ratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Over the last century, cardinals have expanded their range northwest along the Mississippi River and its tributaries and northeast along the Atlantic Coastal plain. Some ornithologists claim the bird’s range change is a sign of global warming (car- dinals are non-migratory and do not store fat). Others suggest it is a response to the growing popularity of bird feeders, as well as to 200 years of habitat change as thickets and clearings, the cardinal’s preferred territory, replaced forests.

In 1886, cardinals were casual north of the Ohio River. By 1895, they reached the Great Lakes; by 1910, Ontario. By 1914, they nested on Staten Island. The first cardinal documented in Con- necticut was in 1943, in Massachusetts in 1958, in Vermont in 1962 and in Maine in 1969. Today, they nest in the Maritime Provinces.

I remember boyhood cardinals on Long Island in the 1960s, brightening the most dismal winter with shots of red. The males attacked their reflection in our backyard windows and on the side view mirror of my father’s car…pecking, pecking, pecking. A tiny breath condensing on cool glass.

According to A.C. Bent, whose 26-volume Life Histories of North American Birds was published by the Smithsonian between 1919 and 1968, “In the cardinal we have a rare combination of good qualities, brilliant plumage, a rich and pleasing voice, beneficial food habits, and a devotion to its mate and family.”

Named for the red robes worn by Roman Catholic cardinals, it’s the official state bird of a record seven states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. Mis- souri, home of Major League Cardinals, oddly enough, chose the bluebird, not the red bird, to adorn its state seal.

This is Ted Levin from Coyote Hollow in Thetford Ctr.

Ted Levin is a writer and photographer and winner of the 2004 Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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