Monday, January 26, 2009

Football, Birds, Virtues and Bugs

For the past two weeks, the Cardinals have been featured on the front page of the Arizona Republic every single day. For all you non-sports buffs, the Cardinals are Arizona's NFL football team. And if you're really living in ignorant bliss, they will be playing in the Superbowl next weekend, something I would have probably been totally unaware of had I not been living in Phoenix (since, believe it or not, I don't watch TV).

The coolest thing about the Cardinals to me...the football that they have an awesome mascot, which is a bird. The fact that the bird is native to Arizona, I have discovered, is something that most football fans are less apt to be aware of than I am of the various key players on the team. I thought it would have been really fun if they were going to play the Baltimore Ravens in the Superbowl instead of the Pittsburgh Steelers, because then there would have been a better chance for the nation to be injected with a little bit of avian awareness. (By the way, the football team is not native to Arizona: the team originated in south Chicago in 1898, then migrated to St. Louis, Missouri in 1960. It wasn't until 1988 that Phoenix became the territorial center for the team.)

But since the Ravens got blitzed by the Steelers, I'm covering the Cardinals here. The Northern Cardinal that is. Just so you don't get too confused, the scientific name for the bird is Cardinalis cardinalis, which is even more redundant than the media coverage of the football team. The Latin name distinguishes this species from seven other types of Cardinals that inhabit Earth. The Northern Cardinal has a vast distribution, ranging all the way from southeastern Canada to Guatemala, and stretching from Maine to the Baja Peninsula. For some reason they don't make it over the Continental Divide, so they are most common in eastern North America. Their range sweeps into the southwestern states below Colorado. Cardinals are partial to the northern hemisphere, hence their accessory appellation. In Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia, the Northern Cardinal holds the honor of State Bird. But not in Missouri (Bluebird) or Arizona (Cactus Wren).

Male Northern Cardinal's are very handsome, brilliant red all over with an orange beak and black face, just like the Cards' mascot. They sport a red mohawk, which explains why this is now a popular hairstyle among football fans. The female is not quite so colorful, for camouflage reasons during nesting season. But she is quite elegant in her buffy gray feathers tinged with red on the crest, tail and wings. Cardinals are also well-known in the bird-watching world for the clear, melodious songs exchanged between mates or territorial rivals. At this, both males and females are equally gifted.

Most endearing about the bird is their devotion to their mates. Breeding pairs are monogamous and hang around with each other all year round. The male helps feed the female while she is brooding the eggs, and then assists with feeding the nestlings for nearly two months. During the winter, cardinals may gather in flocks, but from February through April pairs staunchly defend their nesting territories. By the way, the brightest red males become the best mates and fathers, so are the first choice among females of the species. In order to maintain their feathers' scarlet sheen, they need to feed on insects and fruits high in carotenoids during their molting period.

Cardinals are common throughout their range in thickets, riparian areas and in suburban shrubs and trees. They are non-migratory, so can be seen throughout the year in good habitat. They love it when people put out birdseed for them and are common at winter feeders, especially in snowy climates where wild food may be more scarce. Here in Arizona they are restricted to the southern parts of the state and are most common along washes and rivers, but not so much in very dry areas of the desert. They love mesquite bosques. Wolfberries are a favorite food. Wolfberries are cardinal red!

So there are the football team and the birds. What do these have to do with virtues? Or bugs??? My linguistic quest informs me that the word cardinal is derived from the Latin term cardo, which means "hinge," as in an "important, essential, or principal" link. This became the designation of the Pope's advisors, the College of Cardinals, who are a select group of bishops and priests in the Roman Catholic Church whose duties include electing a new Pope when necessary. The formal attire of cardinals is dyed blood red, symbolizing a willingness to die for their faith. We may surmise that cardinals of the Catholic faith abide by the four Cardinal Virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. On these points I cannot vouch for the football team, their fans or the birds, although I have a hunch that temperance is not well observed at tailgate parties in the alcoholic sense. However, it does seem that some football players and many fans are so devoted that they may die for their team.

Bugs come into the discussion because red dye for fine garments was originally produced from the dried and crushed bodies of scale insects. In Europe, a little sap-sucking bug that lives on oak trees, called Kermes, was a prized source of bright red dye. Later, when the Spanish roamed to South America, they learned from the Aztecs of another red dye-producing scale insect called cochineal. These guys live on prickly pear cacti, and you can find their fuzzy white masses on cacti all around Phoenix. If you grab one and squish it between your fingers, you will see one of the sources of cardinal red, the color of church officials' robes. Bishops also sometimes wear strange pointy hats. That is why when European naturalists first encountered these amazing red birds, they were reminded of the Roman Catholic cardinals.

The football team was also named for the color, which came from the bug that dyed the cardinals' (of virtue) garments. This brilliant inspiration came to the team's owner, Chris O'Brien in 1901 when he purchased some faded maroon jerseys from the University of Chicago. I have to agree that "Cardinals" sounds way better than the "Normals" or "Morgan Athletic Club", which were two of the team's original names. If they were to invoke the four virtues or even the territorial defense skills of the bird along with the color, adopting the name for a football team does carry some dignity.

And, I'm guessing that, although the football team probably uses synthetic dyes these days, there is a good chance that male Arizona Cardinals (the birds) probably eat cochineal bugs as well as wolfberries in order to stay blood red. I'll check on that!

The fascinating info in this blog post was mostly provided by the following links and resources:
Webster's Dictionary
Stokes Nature Guides: A guide to Bird Behavior Volume II by Donald & Lillian Stokes
A Guide to Southern Arizona Bird Nests & Eggs by Pinau Merlin

1 comment:

Jackijo said...

Wonderful article! I love cardinals and the way they sing to each other. I have watched them grow from baby birdhood to adulthood at the DBG. Thanks so much for all the wonderful information.