Photo Quiz #21 Answer

By Jim Burns

There are six North American bird species with “crested” in their common name and at least dozen more that have crest but don’t carry it in their call letters, yet mention the work to anyone, non-birder and most birders alike, and they will “cardinal.” So pervasive is this verbal/visual association that terms such as “Texas cardinal’” (Pyrrhuloxia) and “black cardinal” (Phainopepla) are part of the casual birding vernacular in some parts of the country.  If it’s crested, it must be a cardinal.

As interesting and often mysterious as the etymology of common bird names is, the evolutionary processes which have caused species from unrelated families to develop similar structural or plumage features is even more so. The best scientific explanation for the crests is disparate species is that they evolved to add size and presence to a bird when confronting an aggressor or defending territory. It’s doubtful this was the thought behind the original application of the moniker “cardinal” to a sporting team but, if it was, the red birds on certain white helmets should certainly have their crests shorn away.

A) Good photo, easy bird


Masked Cardinal? Structurally it seems possible. The crest is there and we see the short, thick bill of a seedeater. Northern Cardinals of both sexes do have a black face, but it’s nothing like this unmistakable black mask outlined above and below in white. This is a Cedar Waxwing, photographed in Oak Creed Canyon, October 1985. Despite the bill profile, waxwings subsist primarily on a diet of insects and berries. Not that the bill is hooked which undoubtedly aids in the capture of bugs and fruit.

Our quiz bird’s tail is tipped with the typical bright yellow, but the waxy red secondary tips which would be just be below and outside of the white inner tertial edgings, probably bright enough to show up in black and white, are missing. This waxwing is thought to be age related and possibly contingent upon diet. Most but not all adults birds of both sexes develop the red wing appendages, but juvenile birds do not. Some waxwings will show reddish tail tips, also thought to be diet related. Despite the missing wax, our photo bird is an adult. Juvenile Cedars sport a smaller mask with extensive white where this bird’s black mask tapers up into the crest. Bohemian Waxwings, also crested and masked, are chunkier birds than Cedars, lack white on the upper margin of the facial mask, and have white secondary tips and a streak of yellow spots running sown the primaries.

Authors describing waxwings invariably turn to the word “sleek.” Plumage is soft and velvety, uniformly gray (Bohemian) or gray over peach (Cedar). The combination of stubby bill, upswept crest, and spare but bold markings resembling racing striped gives the look of speed. In flight the pointed, triangular wings enhance this jizz and cause waxwings to be mistaken for starlings.

Waxwings are gregarious at all seasons except when nesting, and they are highly nomadic. Cedar Waxwings may appear at any time any place in the state. In winter the huge flocks in the Pinyon/Juniper habitat north of Flagstaff should be checked carefully for the stray Bohemian, a very sporadic visitor and much sought prize for state listers.


B) Good photo, difficult bird

This could be a True Cardinal, a Real Cardinal. There’s the crest and the short, stubby seedeater bill. The plumage looks right this time, the black on the face running up from the chin, enclosing the eye, and extending across the lower forehead. This looks like your generic crested backyard seedeater. Too bad we’ve lost the brilliant, uniform red in this black and white print

Too easy, right? After three years and last issue’s empids, I would hope I’ve got you looking at bill shapes. Or is it just too hard visually to get past a Northern Cardinal’s red and notice its bill? The red bill of our Northern Cardinal is thick, straight, and pointed. That does not describe the bill on our quiz birds. It has a thick bill which is noticeably curved and blunt. We’re in the right genus, but this isn’t Cardinalis cardinalis (Northern Cardinal). This is Cardinalis sinuatus, and in living color the field the odd, parrot-like bill with its curved upper mandible and zigzag cutting edges, is never red. It is yellow changing to gray in the winter and gray in young birds.

This Pyrrhuloxia was photographed at Lake Patagonia State Park, November 2000. In color the apparent black on the crest, face, and wings is a deep rosy red, and the splash of paler rose on the bird’s chest and belly is striking against the uniform gray background color. Many consider the Pyrrhuloxia, with its softer reds and subtle contrasts, to be a more beautiful bird than its garish congener. The unique bill is thought to be an adaptation for opening mesquite beans, a favorite winter food item.

C) Bad photo, easy bird


Everything about photography is a trade-off and this is doubly true of bird photography. Typically, larger species have a larger “comfort zone” and will not allow nearly as close and approach as smaller ones. Imagine a raptor getting in your face like hummingbirds will often do! The trade-off for proximity to our small species is that they are nervous and flighty. They won’t pose for long. Even with binoculars this can be a problem, so whenever you see a perfectly exposed, frame filling photo of a small bird, know that the primary ingredient of good bird photography is pure dumb luck.

This Bridled Cardinal popped up right next to me as I sat at the Spofford’s feeders near Portal in November 1999, too close to focus on its eye until it flipped around and faced away from me. The bird was long gone before I would have had time to move to the right to get the sun behind me. At least side-lit is better than backlit. The bright shaft of side light provides a nice profiled look at this bird’s crest, seedeater bill, and diagnostic facial markings.

Of course this is not a cardinal, but on more than one occasion I have watched non-birders refer to timice as cardinals, citing the obvious crest as proof. Bridled Titmouse is one of those rare birds aptly named, the black facial lines resembling the bridle used on riding horses. And of course you’ve been wondering about the origin of “titmouse.” Titr is Old Icelandic for “small,” mase old English for “bird.”

Most crested birds can raise or lower the crest at will. Titmice will be at “full crest” when agitated, and it seems titmice are usually agitated about something. Next time notice that the crest itself is gray matching the bird’s back and nape, and is only out-lined in black, and next time you see a crested bird remember the purpose of the crest. It is a distraction device, and it works on birders just as it works on predators. You are drawn visually to the least important part of the bird and you neglect to look closely at structure, behavior, and maybe even plumage features. The next time you see crested birds in this photo quiz, it’s going to be much harder.