NATURE RAMBLINGS: Who’s rooting for the Cardinals?

PHOTO BY MATT BARTMANN Northern cardinals are moving into Colorado.

by Sally Roth


“How do you pick a football team to root for?” I naively asked a roomful of sports-fan friends years ago.

“Mostly, it’s wherever you grew up,” said the Broncos fans. “Hometown pride!”

I guess we’re all tribal at heart, with loyalty to whatever area makes us feel part of the team.

That’s certainly evident on “You know you grew up in…” Facebook pages. “Go back to California!” or any other state you may have moved here from, say some, understandably irate at the unaffordability of housing, and the bad drivers (never native Coloradoans, of course), or whatever other perceived attribute makes those newcomers “different.”

When it comes to birds, starlings and house sparrows are the top targets of ire. We’ve heard that these birds are interlopers, and that’s enough to want them gone.

I ran up against that attitude some 20 or so years ago — with blue jays.

I’d been booked to be on a Denver TV station to talk birds and birdfeeding. Have I mentioned I’m super self-conscious about my looks? It sure didn’t help when the hair and makeup people threw up their hands and said with a sigh, “That’s all we can do.”

Fine. Forget vanity, and enthuse about the fun of feeding birds. No problem.

Until the call-in portion of the show began.

“How do I get rid of blue jays?” was the first question.

And the second, third, and all the rest, or so it seemed, until the on-air hosts mercifully ended the segment.

I wasn’t living in Colorado back then, and I was used to the ways of blue jays. Brash, loud, swooping in to scatter other feeder birds and grab all the peanuts for themselves, yep, I knew lots of folks considered them bullies.

But these phone-in callers were not just annoyed by an occasional nuisance at the feeder.

They were enraged.

And all the questions were phrased the same: “How do I get rid of them?”

Blue jays were new to Colorado then. They’d gradually spread westward from their usual homes in the East and Midwest until they ended up in the Front Range.

And everybody noticed when blue jays showed up.

A native-to-Colorado Steller’s jay, top, and a non-native blue jay, bottom.

Now, think about house finches — those pretty red-tinted guys and quiet brown gals that are at the feeder every day.

They’re “invasives,” too. Originally Southwestern and California birds, they were also sold in the pet trade, thanks to their pretty voices, back when singing canaries were all the rage. That wasn’t exactly legal, and when some pet shops in the East got word that the law was closing in, they set their finches free.


Today, house finches cover nearly the entire country.

Most people didn’t even notice as house finches spread and spread and spread. Unlike big, loud blue jays, these small birds have melodious voices and good manners.

Now another species is just beginning to move in along the Front Range. And this one, I’m willing to bet, is a bird we’ll welcome with delight.

The northern cardinal.

Did I say delight? For me, it’s chagrin.

A couple of North Forty News issues ago, a festive picture of a bright red cardinal was suggested for one of the pages before the paper went to print.

“There are no cardinals in NOCO,” I commented know-it-all-ed-ly, “although they are slowly expanding their range and one or two have been reported in CO (Denver and outside of Boulder).” I didn’t bother mentioning they’d been seen on the eastern plains of Colorado as well.

“Five years,” I’d said, when we got word of cardinal sightings near Boulder. “Five years, and they’ll be here.”

“Maybe 10,” my less-prone-to-exaggeration husband had countered.

“Five! Five years!”

’Scuse me, while I eat my words.

Guess who was spotted during the Fort Collins Christmas Bird Count?

And guess who was reported visiting a yard near Wellington right about the same time I was pooh-poohing the cardinal photo for the paper? (

Keep your eyes open for a flash of red while you’re doling out peanuts to those dastardly blue jays. And keep your ears open for that trademark “What cheer! Cheer cheer CHEER!” The cardinals are coming.


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