Published Dec. 26, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Cardinals top Christmas cards, if not bird count.”
2014 Update: We keep hoping for cardinals here in southeastern Wyoming.
By Barb Gorges
There’s the Christmas Bird Count and then there’s the Christmas card bird count. As I write this Dec. 19, the tally is two chickadees, six cardinals, a cinnamon teal, five birds of undeterminable species—and two penguins.
Last year I identified Canada geese, blue jays and a junco plus the popular chickadees and cardinals.
The jackpot was provided by an Audubon card sent by Audubon friends featuring a red-bellied woodpecker and a white-breasted nuthatch.
John Hewston, compiler of the Thanksgiving count, has also noticed the northern cardinal seems to be a favorite on Christmas cards, “or of people who select them.”
I think cardinals are so popular because their bright red feathers fit the seasonal color scheme when they are depicted perched in an evergreen.
However, I was surprised to find a cardinal on the cover of this month’s issue of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s “Wyoming Wildlife” magazine.
What was Editor Chris Madson thinking? He’s a pretty astute student of nature and I would expect he’d be aware that cardinals are considered to be rare in Wyoming.
“Rare” is the technical term used in the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s “Wyoming Bird Checklist” and rates “1” on a scale of abundance from one to four. The Checklist also identifies the cardinal as a species seen in Wyoming only during spring and/or fall migration.
Of the 28 latilongs formed by the gridwork of degrees of latitude and longitude that biologists use to locate animal observations in this state, the cardinal has only been seen, and without any signs of breeding activity, in seven latilongs, as shown in the “Atlas of Birds, Mammals, Reptiles and Amphibians in Wyoming” also published by Game and Fish.
One of those seven latilongs contains Cheyenne. However there is no asterisk to indicate the observation has been scrutinized and accepted yet by the Wyoming Bird Records Committee.
And in the list published by the Cheyenne High Plains Audubon Society, no cardinals have been seen in any of 40 years’ worth of data for the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count.
Cardinals are most abundant in southeastern United States. Thirty or forty years ago I would see them at my grandparents’ feeder south of Chicago, but not at home a mere 100 miles to the north. Since then they have extended their range north through most of Wisconsin.
Cardinals are classified as permanent residents within their range, so the few observed in Wyoming were more likely to be juveniles on a road trip, now that their range extends as far west as the Wyoming-Nebraska border, than birds lost during migration
It appears Chris is another victim of a pretty passerine face. He explained to me that he’d had this particular cardinal in the photo file for several years and kept passing it over for each December issue, because he knew cardinals are not typical Wyoming wildlife.
He took as a sign the submission by a Wyoming photographer of another cardinal that he could finally justify using it on the cover.
Cardinals are also just over our southern border, in Colorado. It’s only a matter of time before they become common residents of eastern Wyoming too, like the blue jay, another formerly eastern U.S.-only species. Chris’s cover choice serves as a heads-up. When you hear that distinctive cardinal whistle, look up.
It would be neat if a cardinal made an appearance for the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count Jan. 4. Why not plan to join in the fun and look for cardinals—and maybe be part of a historic moment?
Other winter birds are drab by comparison, though close examination shows the beauty of their sophisticated, subtle coloration. Why is the chickadee motif nearly as popular as the cardinal? Maybe it’s because their black and white heads make them easy to depict. Or maybe it’s because in cold weather they fluff up into little round balls, multiplying their cuteness factor.
But there’s something even more appealing about a red bird in winter. When snow makes the landscape monochromatic, or as is the case most of the winter in Cheyenne, the snowless landscape is dull, red is a desirable accent. Our eyes are attracted to red-stemmed shrubs, red sumac, red berries and red bows.
How did red become a symbolic color for this time of year? There’s probably an anthropologic answer published somewhere explaining why people have a yen for red in winter. I suspect both our hunter-gatherer ancestors and animals today roaming the land had/have an eye out for the color that could mean dried rosehips or other fruit. Marketers of packaged foods certainly understand the use of the color red.
Christmas card designers no doubt have their own statistics showing the appeal of cardinals. So when you go out today to buy next year’s Christmas greetings on sale, don’t be surprised if the cardinal cards have already flown.
If you missed them, you could still buy cards with a nice winter landscape and ink in a small red dot on a distant tree branch. Everyone will know it could only be a cardinal.