Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Window Theater

What would cause a seemingly healthy male cardinal to go bald? At first he looked deformed, misshapen, splotchy red and black about the head, but as more and more crest feathers fell out, I saw that his head was perfectly round like a bird's head should be--and surprisingly black, when featherless. By now, he is frightening to behold, with bare black head above a body fully feathered in red. He never stills long enough for a photo.

The cardinal in question has come to the feeder outside the sliding glass doors since mid-May, almost certainly the patriarch of the nest in the neighbor's holly tree. Through two months of live-acting, he gradually revealed more and more black-skinned head.

First spied mating in the azalea thicket, then in and out of the holly tree, often on the banister feeding his beloved a sunflower seed from the feeder, he has been a model lover and father. Now his adolescent sons and daughters come to the feeder with him, sometimes lined up three at a time on the deck banister, waiting their turn on the feeder perch. The young are smaller and browner and comical looking, the males turning redder and cockier by the day. Only the absence of their father's head and crest feathers makes for a less than perfect family portrayal.

Is it caused by an environmental hazard, or is it genetic? I'm guessing the former. Either way, I half-expected the young to show signs of the same problem, since both their habitat and genetic codes are the same as their father's. So far, the new generation looks healthy. Time will tell.

Mysteries abound when one pays long slow attention. I would have expected more answers, fewer questions. It's been quite the opposite. The only truth revealed is that the more one sees, the more one finds about which to wonder. dkm

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