The cardinal rule

Living in Texas has its challenges.  There’s the oppressive heat and humidity.  There’s the tendency to have ice storms instead of snow.  There’s the threat of hurricanes, tornadoes and hail the size of softballs.  There’s seemingly unending construction on every road that goes somewhere.  There’s horrific air quality from our energy production.  There’s an overabundance of religion in government.  There’s a gobsmacking quest for ignorance in our schools.  There’s a radical conservatism that permeates culture to the point of nausea.  And the list goes on.

A male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) perched in some bushes (2009_01_25_005280)

But one of the things that make it all bearable is nature.  Eleven distinct ecological regions.  Ten climatic regions.  More recorded bird, wild cat and reptile species than anywhere north of the Mexico border.  More mammals than any state other than California.  The third largest rate of endemism.  An estimated 30,000 insect species.  Nearly 6,000 plant species.  Host to the vast majority of the eastern monarch butterfly migration.  Part of two of North America’s four bird migratory flyways.  Weather so diverse that it boggles the mind.  Mountains, plateaus, dense forests, plains and prairies, deserts, swamps, rivers and creeks and bayous oh my!, and an assortment of views to satisfy desires both gross and subtle.

A female northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) perched in a tree (2009_12_13_044604)

And because most of the state is humid subtropical, Texas is the go-to place for many migratory birds.  But it’s also the year-round home for birds that otherwise migrate from points further north.  One such bird species is the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis).

A male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) perched in a tree holding a berry in his beak (2009_06_06_022650)

The only other cardinal species north of Mexico, pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus), occurs in far south and west Texas, but it’s so dissimilar that it can’t be confused with northern cardinals.  That makes this a very distinctive bird (and anyone who tries to identify an empid flycatcher by sight quickly learns to appreciate visually distinctive bird species).

A male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) perched in a tree holding (2009_10_18_032412)

My experience with northern cardinals indicates they bond for life.  Maybe that’s not true in toto, but it sure seems that way to me.  For years a pair nested in an evergreen tree near my garage.  They always graced me with singing and, when breeding season rolled around, I enjoyed watching the male (first photo) collect food and feed it to the female.

A female northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) standing on a rock in the middle of a creek (2009_06_06_022623)

But she died in 2008.  He spent quite some time lamenting, calling out a lonesome dirge from treetops and bushes.  He’s immediately recognizable because he never lost that dark spot on the top of his bill, so I paid attention to him.  I’m not anthropomorphizing his actions; during his mourning period, his song and behavior changed.  For several weeks at least.  It was an enlightening experience to witness.

A male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) perched on a tree branch (2009_10_17_031861)

By last year I saw him flitting about with a new gal in tow (second female photo).  They regularly perched in the shrubs around my patio, so I watched him bring her food and I watched them engage in typical mating behavior.  His song changed back to the celebratory tune I’d come to expect from him, and together they could woo a smile from even the most stoic of faces.  And now they’re nesting in the same tree he’s called home for ten years or more.  Around these parts, his is the cardinal rule that counts.

14 thoughts on “The cardinal rule”

  1. You have some of the most vibrant bird photography anywhere. Clearly I need to get a new lens or a new strategy – or better yet – avoid bird shots altogether. What kind of lens are you using? You and Mary F have that magic, skulking thing going on. You must have the patience of a saint or a $10,000 lens.

    Exceptional writing as always. I’ve recently met some savvy, worldly scientists who could live anywhere and they insist on living in Oklahoma for the same reasons as Texas – the species diversity is unrivaled in most parts of the country. We also have 11 ecozones and a church on every corner.

    1. You’re too generous, Tim. Thank you. Mostly I shoot with a Canon 100-400mm L lens, but sometimes I shoot with shorter lenses if circumstances warrant. A lot of it has to do with getting close (until I buy a $10,000 lens). And I’m quite patient; half the time I let the birds come to me. But I’m also sneaky and know enough about wildlife to get close.

      As for colors, I’m a huge fan of ambient light. In fact, I despise artificial light, especially flash, so I’ve learned a lot about drawing out color and detail without artificial illumination.

  2. I don’t think I could stand the heat in Texas, but that info on biodiversity sure makes me want to visit. And the cardinals! So beautiful. As usual, your photography is amazing.

    1. Thank you, Liz. Yes, the heat is pretty gross down here, and it’s made worse by the humidity. But it’s all bearable once you get outside and start discovering all the goodies lurking about in the wild.

  3. Jason, what a great description of Texas!

    The fact that you have known the same male cardinal for 10 years is amazing. That you observed him widowed, mourning, and finding another mate…makes my heart swell. What a priceless experience, so glad you shared the story.

    1. I’d become so used to the pair being around all the time that her death was blatantly obvious. And the change in his behavior came as a shock, especially because it lasted for a while. That really told me a lot about their pair bonding. So I’m glad you found the same joy in it I did, Amber.

      (And I’ve read the oldest cardinal in the wild was 12 or 14 years old. That frightens me because he’s at least ten. But nature takes it course.)

  4. I loved the story as much as the photos! We enjoy a “couple” here, too…much more prominent/visible in winter, but we hear the male’s lovely song almost every evening. One of our favourites here, and so neat that you share the species, even though we’re a country apart!

    1. Thanks, C! I admit to enjoying the differences and similarities I get to see through your blogging (just like Seabrooke’s who’s also way up yonder). It makes for a neat comparison.

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