Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Cardinal Rule

Our church bulletins often have some great photography on the front of them, and today's was no exception showing a bright red cardinal, head tucked back, plumage fluffed up. The cardinal is probably my favourite bird. No, that's not true; it is my favourite non-predatory bird. Thanks to The Hardy Boys, the peregrine falcon is my overall feathered favourite, but as far as your less aggressive types go, the cardinal stands out a fair ways. And I am saying that as someone who cares not a whit for either St. Louis baseball or Arizona football.

I've only ever seen a wild cardinal once. It was while we were living in Toronto, before Fenya was born. We lived in Etobicoke in a three story walk up (a 'triplex'), about two blocks from Lake Ontario. It was nothing to write home about, but we had the third floor to ourselves, and our proximity to the lake helped keep things a little cooler in the summer.

There was another triplex next door to us, and a narrow driveway threaded between them to the gravel parking lot where about a half-dozen modestly sized vehicles could conceivably park. Tall fence and a couple of significantly sized trees separated our lot from he back yards of the homes on the next street that backed onto us, so we didn't have to look into someone else's home at eye level. A tall wire draped between two utility poles passed directly above the centre of the small lot, where once I saw two crows working in unison to catch a squirrel between them. The crows were terrifyingly clever and methodical in their methods, but the squirrel was clever enough to twig to the scheme and leapt to the ground below in a daring dash to freedom, which made me happy, since I've no love for crows.

This same wire hosted a cardinal one winter, and I was completely spellbound. From the moment we had arrived in Etobicoke, I had noticed and appreciated the difference in birdsong. Given that in Edmonton magpies, crows and bluejays sit at the top of the ornithological hierarchy and dominate the springtime bandwidth with their raucous screeches and caws, even a robin can seem positively exotic at times, their red chests popping out like that pink dress in Schindler's List against the brown ubiquity of the sparrow population. But to see this cardinal in sharp relief against the white snow and brown gravel was to see something from another world.

I don't know how long I stood in the kitchen watching him, but my coffee cooled off like Joe Jackson's, so it must have been awhile. When he flew away, I felt better for the experience, despite the fact that the closest I have come to one since then is the decorative one Audrey puts on the tree every Christmas, or occasionally on a holiday card.

The bulletin today got me to thinking, though; what is the link between cardinals and Christmas? I'm no expert, but there is no mention of them in the gospels that I am aware of. No nativity set I have ever seen has tried to cram them in there, and trust me, given the sorts of things that merit inclusion these days, it can't be for lack of trying. At no point does a bright red bird lead Santa's reindeer on their appointed route, and there appear to be none in Whoville, one of the most colourful holiday communities.

It turns out in this case, it is simply a win for esthetics. The cardinal's scarlet plumage stands in stark contrast to the greys and whites of the winter season, and red being a festive colour is enough to bridge the gap and make the bird into a holiday tradition. Apparently the cardinal is the animal kingdom's David Lee Roth, wherein it matters less what he does, and more that he looks good doing it.

Which, at least in the cardinal's case, is certainly a hard point to refute.


  1. Stephen - love the comparison to David Lee Roth. I've also wondered about the cardinal at Christmas. Cheers, Mike
    p.s. I root against the squirrels - always.

  2. You know, if a flaming rodent had come out of *my* chimney, I would probably harbour some resentment too. That story alone is a good reason to start your own blog.