On Thursday, getting out of the car, I saw a bird swoop out of the honeysuckle across the backyard and into the crepe myrtle. It was a female northern cardinal, less flashy but rivaling the male in beauty. On Saturday, we twice saw her shoot from the nest. This is probably her second brood of the year, and may answer a lingering mystery from last spring, when we found the dog chewing on an unfledged bird and had no idea where it came from.
Every American recognizes the cardinal, at least the gaudy male. Its Latin name, Cardinalis cardinalis, is the first many of us learn. It’s the state bird of seven states, more than any other species. Their song is unmistakable. To a drably pragmatic human, the multimedia beauty of a cardinal, male or female, seems bafflingly gratuitous. To reduce its color and song to mere reproductive advantage, a tool of natural section, is doltish. In its emphatic dazzle, the cardinal is our living reproach. Richard Wilbur writes “In a Bird Sanctuary” (The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, 1947):
“It’s hard to tell the purpose of a bird;
for relevance its does not seem to try.
No line can trace no flute exemplify
its traveling; it darts without the word.
Who will devoutly to absorb, contain,
birds give him pain.”