Going for a walk outside this time of year is not a very colorful experience. You are lucky if you have some steaming blue seawater to break up the frigid evergreen and the browns, whites, and grays that make up the winter landscape. There are surely none of those warm, festive colors like purple and yellow that will mark the spring—with one small but common exception. Red.

Walking through the winter forest I may at first be surprised to see a flash of red breeze by me. Have I just been witness to a bloody massacre? Is some bullfighter waving his muleta at me from the side? Nope. It’s just a northern cardinal alighting on a nearby branch. This time of year, even the less brightly colored females are a ruddy treat to behold against the bleak winterscape.

According to folklore, a visit from a cardinal is a friendly check-in from a departed loved-one, letting you know you aren’t alone. It’s a good thing, then, that cardinals don’t migrate, because who doesn’t need such a visit this time of year?

In a recent column I mentioned that I would be spending more time learning about edge species, the populous animals that thrive at the edge between the forest and the suburban environment. The Northern Cardinal is great example of these, especially because they are not commonly thought of as such. I, at least, used to think of cardinals as natives of New England, and a species that was in danger from habitat loss. But a 2012 article by Bob Duchesne in the Bangor Daily News set me right. He explains that: “Originally, cardinals were limited to the southeastern United States. About a century ago they started to expand their range along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Before that, they were seldom seen north of the Ohio River. By 1895, cardinals had reached the Great Lakes and they spread into southern Ontario by 1910.”

Part of why they spread so widely is because people wanted to see them, and deliberately attracted them by putting out birdseed. Cardinals are mostly granivorous, meaning they are seed eaters. Their strong beaks and dexterous tongues make them exceptionally good at getting seeds out of their hard shells, so they easily outcompete other songbirds at the feeder. Their spread into New England was mostly through this outdoor, human-driven competition, but some of them may also have been released from captivity. Before the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, there was a lively trade in cardinals as pets. Southerners would capture them in abundance in the south and sell them in New England and Europe as cage birds. The Migratory Bird Treaty was an early example of international cooperation in conservation. The agreement between the U.S. and Canada protected the cardinal, and almost 1,100 other species of songbird, from a future of incarceration.

By 1910, cardinals had proliferated as far north as Ontario and Quebec. But they weren’t then as abundant as they are today. Duchesne of the BDN article doesn’t recall seeing a wild one in Maine until the 1970s. Now it seems there is a pair of them in every neighborhood.

And they do come in pairs. While they don’t always mate for life, cardinals often stay together for many years. No small part of their success as a species is their enthusiasm for parenthood. A single pair can have up to four clutches of eggs in one year! No wonder they have taken over most of North America.

Still, having lots of little one doesn’t mean they are safe. Cardinals and their eggs have many natural predators including hawks, eagles, snakes, and fisher cats. But their most fearsome predator is another ubiquitous edge species: the domestic cat. That’s right, house cats are perfectly evolved bird-killing machines. That’s why Maine Audubon recommends keeping Fluffy indoors at all times.

European settlers first called them cardinals because the male’s prominent red crest reminded them of the mantel worn by the Catholic prelates of the same title. The Cherokee referred to cardinals simply as ‘redbirds,” but they were the first to consider them a good omen. Their legend recounts the arrival of the first redbird as “the daughter of the sun.”

Seeing a cardinal in your window may be good luck, so don’t be alarmed if it happens to be attacking the glass. He is not attacking you; he is going after his own reflection. Males are very territorial and have been known to fight relentlessly with their own reflected selves. When you hear their signature “chew chew” call, that is a warning to stay off their turf. This territoriality means that the cardinals you see near your home are likely the same ones each time.

Cardinals as we know them today are scions of the birdfeeder. Keeping feeders is still an open question in conservation circles. Some love helping birds out by offering additional calories in a land of encroaching development. Others see feeders as a vector for disease and an attraction to unnatural clusters where they are more likely to be harmed by manmade objects or other species. In my opinion, we live in a time of the edge species, where it is not birdfeeders, but suburban sprawl that is pushing animals into crowded spaces. Let’s at least give them something to eat while they’re there. But we should also disinfect the hardware regularly.

Hopefully, having this knowledge of cardinals won’t take the shine off glimpsing one. Just because they are many doesn’t mean they can’t be our dead relatives. After all, who hasn’t lost someone? And the fact that they once were invasive doesn’t mean their lives aren’t valuable. It means they are just like us. Next time you see that brilliant streak of red in the corner of your eye, just remember that it’s the daughter of the sun.

W. W. Matteson is a writer who lives in Hope, where he weaves tales about Maine’s coast and mountains.

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