By Keith Michael
Red door. Red brick. Red fire escape. Red chimney. Red stop sign. Red ‘No Standing Anytime’ sign. Red traffic light. Red scarf. Red ribbons on a sagging Christmas wreath. Red stroller. Red boots. Red pom-pom on a hat. Red car. Red taillights. Red- and-white corgi (Millie suggested I throw that one in). Red mitten on the sidewalk. Red cheeks. Red Cardinal.
Ah, red Cardinal. Actually, two red Cardinals. Taking corgi-sized, meandering steps while navigating the ice patches down Perry Street at the end of my leash (yes, I’m at the end of her leash), Millie, connoisseur of all that might have been left overnight for her to consume, pauses by the snow-covered curb. There are the Cardinals, one on each side of the street high in the trees—his brilliant red crest flared toward the rising sun, her nuanced olive-and-wine attire still in shadow. Their congenial plinks skip across the morning air.
The fact that the Cardinal is one of our familiar birds, along with that other primary-colored showboat of our neighborhood avian world, the Blue Jay, is remarkable to contemplate. How does such fancy plumage serve their well-being when so many other birds choose dowdy camouflage as the safest way to travel? True, the Lady Cardinal is more practical, and her colors atop a nest in dappled light through summer leaves make her nearly invisible. But when her swashbuckling mate bombs in with farm-to-table fresh take-out, it seems like, then, her cover would be blown. In common parlance, “It, like, works for them. So, like, whatever.” And every year, there are fresh young Cardinals with brilliant red feathers.
A few weeks ago, I was on my way to Forest Park, Queens with friends (okay, I was looking for Owls), and heard myself confess, “At this time of year, it’s likely not to be very ‘birdy,’ other than Cardinals and Blue Jays.” Laughter. There I was, speaking about two of our flashiest residents as though being “everyday birds” cancelled out their worthiness for admiration. The park turned out to be very birdy indeed: Red-tailed Hawks, Crows, Chickadees, Nuthatches, four kinds of Woodpeckers, yes, Blue Jays, (no Owls), but more than a dozen Cardinals dining on the mid-winter delicacies of Tulip Tree seedpods.
At long last, after trudging chest-deep through a snow bank, Millie braves a step to cross the cobblestones. As if on cue, above our heads, the two Cardinals crisscross the street as well. Now Lady C finds her spotlight in the sun, and Mister C ramps down his brightness to a dull crimson on the shady side of the street.
Even though their formal name is Northern Cardinal, and no matter how many times it is explained to me, I can’t fathom how they manage to stay so cheerful and energetic through the sub-freezing temperatures of our winters. My morning layering includes long johns, jeans, two shirts, two sweaters, a two-layered coat, one scarf around my neck, another scarf around my face, a flappy-eared fleece hat, insulated gloves, and boots. Millie is modeling her au courante winter fur coat. I’m still cold. I can’t speak for Millie. But that pair of Cardinals is bounding from branch to branch, finding winter sweetmeats among this spring’s buds. They seem to have retained their same sleek summer garb, with that magical thermal layer of down feathers protecting them from the wrath of plummeting temperatures. They don’t even need mittens on those twig toes. I don’t get it.
In the middle of the street, a gust of wind nudges me across the ice. As the sun ducks behind a cloud, Millie squints into the blast then squints back at me in her well-honed, “I’m ready to go home now” glare. The Cardinals are still plinking to each other above our heads as the tree branches click in the wind. It feels like snow.
Please visit keithmichaelnyc.com for the latest schedule of New York City WILD! urban-adventures-in-nature outings throughout the five boroughs.