Persistent Reflection Fighters
BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)
In the bird world, just as in the human world, persistence usually pays off in success. Even when the methods just don’t seem to make any sense at all.
When I lived in Durham, North Carolina, I used to sit in my office watching a male northern cardinal repeatedly flailing himself against the window panes behind my desk. Smash-retreat, smash-retreat, smash-retreat! On and on and on this went, day after day.
A Northern Cardinal bathes in a cool stream in southern Georgia. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)
The bird was fighting off his own reflection, thinking it was an interloping male trying to weasel its way into his territory. I even stuck hawk silhouettes on the window panes, but nothing helped. The seemingly possessed bird just kept going at it, like a prize fighter trying to land a knock-out punch. Fortunately, the persistent reflection fighter never seemed to really hurt himself—he just never gave up his battle. My aunt tells a similar story about watching a male cardinal repeatedly attack the side mirror of her car parked in her Vermont driveway. Same deal—the bird would fly into the mirror, flailing its wings wildly, fall back, then come flailing away again—time after time.
While both male cardinals my aunt and I were watching thought they were aggressively defending their territories from suspected intruders, they were really just wasting their time and energy. But the intensity and persistence with which they going about their tasks shows that male cardinals, in general, are very successful at defending their territories from intruders of both their own and other bird species.
This is why cardinals are such a widespread and successful species, so much so that no fewer than seven states—North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Virginia—have designated the cardinal as their state bird. Plus think about all the sports teams, college and pro, nicknamed the Cardinals, from baseball in St. Louis to football in the Arizona desert to basketball in western Kentucky.
As so appropriately stated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website: “The male cardinal is perhaps responsible for getting more people to open up a field guide than any other bird. They’re a perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, and style: a shade of red you can’t take your eyes off of. Cardinals don’t migrate and they don’t molt into a dull plumage, so they’re still breathtaking in winter’s snowy backyards.”
Drinking from a conveniently located sprinkler, a Northern Cardinal displays the brilliant colors that make it responsible for getting more people to open their field guides than any other bird species. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS)
The cardinal’s spring song variety is also a source of backyard revelry for all who have endured long, depressing winters. And since female cardinals are one of the world’s few girl songbirds, the listening pleasure is doubled when these birds are around. In fact, the female cardinal actually sings longer, louder, and more complex songs than the male, especially when she is sitting on eggs in her nest.
One reason for the popularity of the cardinal’s song is that it’s easy for humans to imitate—even for those of us without a speck of musical talent. Just repeat these words in a loud, sweet descending whistle: birdie, birdie, birdie—or—cheer, cheer, cheer—and you’ve got it!
Text excerpted from book: BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press).
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.