By Keith Michael
Since March seems to be the new May this year with a want of even mildly wintry weather, an unzipped windbreaker is a sufficient alternative to my usual coat, down vest, hat, and scarf. Though by the time that you are reading this I hope that the West Village is cozily buried in a late blizzard. Millie began her annual mid-winter shedding in early February, so as we walk along, tufts of fur on her bum are fluttering in the breeze yearning to fly free. Why, oh why, does a corgi find this time of the year perfect for refreshing her coat?
Millie’s glacial walking pace is conducive to pondering the subtleties of neighborhood birding. High above our heads in the still bare trees I hear the musical plink plink of a Northern Cardinal, that brazenly red bird with peaked feathers on its head named for the peaked miter of a religious dignitary. I’ve spotted him now as he flies to a windowsill across the street. Those plinks were just the warmup for the full-throated concert of cheer cheer cheer cheerio that reels out of him in myriad variations. From the next block flows an answering call. Yay, spring duet singing!
Cardinals are one of the few birds who recognizably sing back and forth to each other like this—improvising on a theme. Maybe it’s because it’s so lyrical that we refer to their songs as romantic harmonizing rather than whatever scuttlebutt is dished out when Blue Jays scream at each other. I can’t recognize the male voice as different from the female voice, though, since right in front of me I’m watching a male Cardinal throw his head back singing, I’m assuming the response in the distance is from the female he’s courting.
Millie is investigating the crocus leaves peeking out behind a street tree fence, “Look but don’t touch, and don’t…”
Perhaps Cardinals’ voices aren’t different, at least to us, but male and female Cardinals look differently from each other. The scientific name for this variation is called sexual dimorphism, but basically it means that girl birds don’t look the same as boy birds. In the Cardinal species, the male is all-over scarlet with a harlequinade black face mask and bright orange bill, while the female boasts an olive and taupe ensemble with classy personalized scarlet accents. Bold or nuanced, they’re both handsome birds. If they weren’t so familiar, crowds would gather in the street to catch a glimpse of this red-carpet avian pair.
The males and females of several other of our common birds obviously have “plumages of a different color” as well. The gentleman House Sparrow is the one with the jaunty black ascot and gray formal collar whereas the gentlewoman is a cornucopia of browns and grays. Likewise, the Mallard hen is a camouflaging panoply of earth tones while the drake has a gaudy iridescent green head. Other locals boast of a unisex fashion statement. Blue Jays, Mourning Doves, Starlings, Grackles, Robins, Chickadees, and Gulls all ascribe to the one-color-fits-all manifesto. Alternatively, one of the rarest species that I’ve seen in the West Village, a small shorebird migrating from the Arctic Circle that stopped by Hudson River Park one August called a Red-necked Phalarope, hangs all of these conventions out to dry: it’s the female phalarope that has the namesake brilliant red neck, and it’s the male with the sartorial subtleties of the two. Whatever floats your boat.
And now a newsworthy interlude from out of the West Village: In January 2019, while watching their backyard feeder, a birding couple in Erie, Pennsylvania noticed an unusually plumaged Cardinal that soon became a media sensation. The right side of its body had the red feathers of a male bird, and the left side was the olive of a female bird—nearly divided in a perfect line down the middle. Rare but it happens. Nature is tricky.
While I’ve been thinking about all of the theories for why these various strategies have evolved, my lusty crimson songster has flown away—possibly fatigued by his long-distance relationship, he left to do something about it.
Millie looks up at me as though her hundred-step marathon has fatigued her as well. Ooh, I hear the dueting pair again down the block. Maybe I can pull a tuft of fur from Millie’s bum to motivate her before we go to look for them.
Visit keithmichaelnyc.com for books, photographs, and the latest schedule of New York City WILD! urban-adventures-in-nature outings throughout the five boroughs. Visit his Instagram @newyorkcitywild for photos from around NYC.