As I pulled up to the house this morning and parked the car at the curb, I saw the male cardinal. He was hopping through the brown leaves on the ground by the forsythia bush, looking for things to eat. I had been thinking about the need to clean up the accumulated litter in these bushes, the food wrappers, the faded flyers about gutter-cleaning and window-washing. This stuff collects here over the winter. It's wet, disgusting and muddy. How enchanting then to have my attention drawn away from the endless cares of home ownership to the sheer glory of being red.
My Great-Aunt Clara taught me respect for the cardinal. She watched for him from her kitchen window, left black and white striped sunflower seeds in a neat pile on the rails of her back porch for his enjoyment. He--the cardinal--would come to feast and would leave a mess behind, hulls scattered on the grey-painted boards of the porch floor. She would sweep it all up in triumph. The cardinal had been there! Females ate there, too. The love sunflower seeds was not strictly a male attribute, and she did not begrudge them the food (squirrels, however . . . .) But seeing the male--that was an event!
What is it like to be so very red, so scarlet, so different from the early spring groundscape, so different from the summer grass? This cardinal's partner was hunting for food, too, sitting in the forsythia bush, flirting even. But I did not see her until she moved and pointed her brownish orange beak in my direction. When I finally got out of the car and walked to the gate, my eyes followed the male, who leaped first into the bush, then to red roof over the dining room bay window, and finally flew upward into the maple tree. It would be hard to search for and find a brown nest and a brown mother with that bright red distraction drawing your eye elsewhere. Is this why the bird is so red, regal and flashy? To distract predators from the vulnerability of tiny, tasty eggs, of tender young birds?