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Red-crested Cardinal Not New

Dear Bird Folks,

I’ve recently returned from a trip to Hawaii, where I saw a new kind of cardinal. It is called a “Red-crested Cardinal.” It has the same body shape as the regular cardinal, but it is mostly gray, with a red head and a light colored bill. Have you ever heard of these cardinals?

– Linda, Centerville, MA


That’s so cute, Linda,

I like that you saw a “new” cardinal, as if there are brand new species of birds coming out of Hawaii. I can envision the ads in birding magazines (read in a loud, bold announcer’s voice): “New for 2007, the Red-crested Cardinal! Be the first birder on your block to check this five-star bird off your life list! Sneak preview this Saturday, at a Hawaiian island near you!” Too dramatic? Perhaps I have been watching a few too many car commercials on TV lately.

From the pictures we see of Hawaii we might think that it’s an area of lush rain forests, filled with all sorts for tropical birds, freaky looking jungle creatures, scary snakes and wild monkeys. But for all of Hawaii’s lushness, it has surprising little animal diversity. It is home to only a handful of native birds, no native snakes (sweet), and no native terrestrial mammals, which means no monkeys. Too bad, a few monkeys would have been nice.

The reason for the lack of such creatures is Hawaii’s location. It is 2,400 miles from the nearest continental land mass. Even in a plane it takes a zillion hours to get there, especially from the East Coast. And what snake or monkey can afford to fly? The only creatures that can afford to fly are birds. Consequently, birds are the only major players in Hawaii’s list of native fauna. And even at that, the list of endemic birds is only around seventy species, with about a third of those already extinct.

Since it is location, not sufficient habitat, that keeps new life forms out of Hawaii, introduced creatures have no trouble flourishing once they arrive there. Your “new” cardinal, Linda, the Red-crested Cardinal, is one these introduced species that has found a home in Hawaii. The Red-crested Cardinal first came to Honolulu in 1929, probably after winning an all-expenses paid trip on Price is Right, and has been enjoying it there ever since.

Here’s a little test for you. Now that you know that the Red-crested Cardinal is not originally from Hawaii, can you can guess where it is from? No? Here’s a hint: The other common name of this bird is the “Brazilian Cardinal.” Are you starting to get the picture now? I hope my hint didn’t give too much away. Yup, your new cardinal is normally found in nearby South America. In addition to Brazil, this bird can also be found in parts of Argentina, Bolivia and probably a few more of those types of countries.

In its native habitat this cardinal avoids dense woodlands, preferring more open terrain where it feeds on seeds and insects on the ground. Unlike “our” cardinal, in which the male is a stunning red and the female a reluctant brown, the sexes of these cardinals look the same. Both birds have a pure white underside, a solid silver back, a bright red head and bib, with a standard issue cardinal crest and cone-shaped beak.

Red-crested Cardinals are hardy birds. They also reproduce well in captivity and are often owned by people who enjoy having birds kept in cages. About ten years ago, some lady, who I believe was from Eastham, had one of these handsome birds eating under her feeders. She came running in to see me with a picture of a bird that was “not in any of her bird books.” That’s a statement I hear almost every day, and this time it was actually true. As I remember the bird stayed around for a few days, then disappeared and was not seen again. Most likely, this was an escaped caged bird and it didn’t have the skills needed to handle the wilds of Eastham.

As recently as the late ’70s, field guides listed the “regular” cardinal simply as “cardinal.” Then it was decided that we didn’t have the only cardinal in the world. There are few others, including the Red-crested, the Red-capped, the Yellow-billed, and the St. Louis Cardinals. So our cardinal had bit of name change. The books now refer to our bird as the “Northern Cardinal.” I’ll bet it bugged the heck out the people from Virginia and Kentucky, when “Northern” was added to the name of their state bird.

I’m glad you got to see the Red-crested Cardinal, Linda. They really are handsome birds, even though I’m pretty sure most naturalists believe that the many introduced exotics are doing the Hawaiian ecosystem more harm than good. However, Hawaiians have found a way to pay back the rest of the world for introducing all those unwelcome creatures to their islands. By exporting those gaudy Hawaiian shirts for the rest of us to wear, Hawaiians have obtained a good measure of revenge.