The male cardinal is bright red and a treat to watch. In my two and a half years in Massachusetts, I had never spotted one. But this March, I started seeing them frequently: outside my window, during my walks in the woods around Amherst, and while driving (they would often fly across the road). One gets pretty superstitious when such things happen. I started to feel special every time I saw one. I asked others if they had seen any and would feel proud if their reply was negative. There was probably a simpler explanation of course. It snowed and rained a lot this year, and the population could have spiked for some ecological reason. Or the sight of the first made me look for more every day, with the result that I had simply begun to see what had always been there.
Whatever the reason, the sight of cardinals did me make me feel great. They sparked a wider interest in birds, nature and other species. It all seemed a tremendous mystery.
The apartment I used to live had massive windows in the living room. It overlooked a wide green lawn that sloped down to a stream. Close to the window was a fledgling tree or plant that had grown only to a few feet. It was here that every morning the birds of all kinds would come, perch on a weak branch for a few seconds, their heads bobbing this way and that, before moving to a nearby bird feeder. There was a family of chipmunks too. They had their own routine and burrows into which they disappeared and hid food. The squirrels – giants compared to the chipmunks – frequented the bigger trees just beyond, flashing their bushy tails and chasing each other. This was very much a window onto domestic wildlife.
It was here that I saw the same pair of cardinals almost every day for a few weeks. Only the male cardinal is red. As in so many other species – peacocks, lyrebirds –and in contrast to humans, it is the male that struts his beauty or defining characteristic. That defining characteristic can be color, a dance, a unique song. The female cardinal is a drab grey – but still carries a tinge of red. Like so many other birds, cardinals mate for life. So a sudden sighting of bright red would invariably be followed by sober gray or vice versa. A month or two later, I learned to identify their calls. Cardinals have very distinctive metallic sound. Even if I was unable to spot them, I knew they were around in the trees. I just had to roll down car windows while driving through tree-lined narrow roads.
An aside: There is also a rarer but equally colorful competitor --the yellow finch. A finch is smaller than the cardinal – about the size of sparrow. It is a bright yellow, and the brightness is made sharper by the black strips along the finch's wings. Finches were harder to spot, but they did show up once in few weeks.