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Cardinals are pretty bad birds

February 06, 2010 at 01:51 PM

The cardinal is the third most popular bird mascot in U.S. high schools. Only Eagles and Falcons suit up more often.

Granted, bright red trimmed in black makes for nice-looking uniforms, but there a lot of birds more fierce looking than a redbird. Some schools even give their cardinal mascots teeth, steely red eyes and a scowl that would put fear into a bobcat.

Rather than “badding up” a cardinal, it might have been easier to find a more assertive name in the beginning. The characteristics that fans expect from their school mascot, such as fiercely defending themselves and being aggressive in their own territory, I thought were lacking in the cardinal — until I started watching them at the bird feeder.

Cardinals are pretty bad. They not only chase other cardinals away from the feeder, they puff themselves up and go after birds under the feeder that are trying to make a living picking up the food on the ground. Even without teeth and bloodshot eyes, cardinals are tough, tenacious and often fearless.

When snow is on the ground and pickings are slim elsewhere, there’s a pretty good show going on at the bird feeder.

It’s easy to see why few if any teams call themselves the sparrows, chickadees or goldfinches. Those pint-sized birds stay out of the way until the big boys have finished tanking up.
The grackles come in four or five at a time and take over. Even the fiercest cardinal won’t mess with them. Grackles are loud, feisty and mean. Grackles have many of the characteristics of a fine fighting mascot, but they are downright ugly. Their brown and black plumage would make for some pretty dull cheerleader outfits.

The woodpeckers that show up to hammer at the suet cakes don’t take any guff from anybody. Even the downy woodpecker, which is no bigger than a defensive lineman’s thumb, only gives up ground to a bigger woodpecker. I’ve seen those little guys dive-bomb the cardinals and peck them on the head.

The hairy woodpecker is about twice the size of the downy woodpecker and with pretty much the same markings. It can hammer a little harder and will take on a group of grackles.

My favorite is the big guy: the red-bellied woodpecker. He has a beak like a leather punch, and nobody messes with him. If I were starting a high school team and looking for a feathered mascot that could whip its weight in blue jays, cardinals or even grackles, I’d pick the red-bellied woodpecker.

Maybe that’s not such a good idea. Even with its sharp beak and its willingness to take on all comers, “Let’s go, Red-Bellies!” doesn’t have much of a ring to it.

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