About us: We own the Wild Birds Unlimited nature shop in East Lansing, Michigan,
a store that provides a wide variety of supplies to help you enjoy the birdwatching hobby.

This blog was created to answer frequently asked questions & to share nature stories and photographs.
To contribute, email me at bloubird@gmail.com.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Would a cardinal have more fun as a blonde?

If you ask me a question I take it seriously. If you want to know why some birds live longer than others, if a hawk will eat your dog, or if you can have a penguin as a pet, I’ll answer your questions as best as I can and may even go a little more in depth than you wanted. I like birds and I like that other people are thinking about birds and I always have fun doing research.

People should never think their questions are silly. If you're thinking about it, believe me, lots of other people are too. Recently when someone asked how to tell a male and female cardinal apart, as usual the question led me to look at published research on cardinals and their coloration.

One study that I found a little disturbing was done by L. LaReesa Wolfenbarger at Cornell University 1998. They captured 30 male birds with a similar red coloration and 1/3 were given a Clairol Professional “Torch Crimson” treatment to deepen their red color, 1/3 were lightened with an “Ultra Blonde” treatment and 1/3 were left the same color.

A cardinal goes through one full molt in the fall, and their health, and how well they are eating determines how red their plumage will be for the following year. The redder cardinals are usually the more dominant birds.

So what happens if you take cardinals all the same shade of red and make some lighter and some darker? Released the next day after their male beauty treatments, the scientists observed to see if color played a roll in dominance during the non-breeding season.

The results found it didn’t affect their behavior. Birds that are redder naturally are probably in better health, more experienced and better foragers than duller birds and are more dominant naturally. The false redder heads didn’t take advantage of their new coloring to control food resources. Both the falsely brighter and duller birds acted in accordance with their true coloring. 

Do you have a question about birds? Send it to bloubird@gmail.com and I'll do my best to answer it. We also post bird photos every Friday and you are welcome to contribute. Happy birding! Sarah

Source: Is Red Coloration of Male Northern Cardinals Beneficial during the Nonbreeding Season?: A Test of the Status Signaling http://elibrary.unm.edu/sora/Condor/files/issues/v101n03/p0655-p0663.pdf

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