The Myth Of The Blue Cardinal: Unveiling the Truth

In the world of ornithology, color plays a pivotal role in bird identification.

Among the vibrant avian population, the cardinal, with its striking red plumage, holds a special place in birdwatchers’ hearts.

However, an intriguing question often arises among birdwatching enthusiasts and beginners alike – “Are there blue cardinals?” The short answer is, no. Despite numerous claims and stories, the existence of blue cardinals remains a myth.

However, the confusion is not baseless. Several blue-hued birds bear a resemblance to the cardinal, leading to misidentification. Let’s debunk the myth of the blue cardinal and figure out what’s really going on.

What Cardinals Look Like

First, let’s go over what cardinals look like. That way we can explain why there isn’t such a thing as a blue cardinal.

Among the genus Cardinalis (of the family Cardinalidae), there are three distinct species of cardinal birds – the Northern Cardinal, the Desert Cardinal (or Pyrrhuloxia), and the Vermilion Cardinal.

Each of these species has its unique characteristics and geographical distribution, ranging from the abundant North American Northern Cardinal to the Desert Cardinal of the thorny American Southwest, and the tropical Vermilion Cardinal of Colombia and Venezuela.

1. Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

The Northern Cardinal, also known as the redbird, is one of the most widespread and abundant of North American birds.

It is recognized by its bright red plumage in males, making it the only red North American bird with a crest. Females are a duller red or brown. The bird is common in the Southeast and is the official bird of seven eastern U.S. states. It has also been introduced into Hawaii, southern California, and Bermuda.

Northern Cardinals are nonmigratory and are known for their clear whistled songs. They favor sunflower seeds and are often seen around bird feeders. This has allowed them to expand their range as far north as southwestern Canada. A pair may raise up to four broods a year. Males exhibit territorial behavior, especially during mating season, and have been known to attack their own reflections in windows.

2. Desert Cardinal or Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus)

The Desert Cardinal, also known as the Pyrrhuloxia, is native to the thorn scrub of the American Southwest.

This bird is less showy than the Northern Cardinal, characterized by its grey color with a red mask. Unlike its northern counterpart, the Desert Cardinal often forages in small flocks. It can be found in the U.S. states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and woodland edges in Mexico.

3. Vermilion Cardinal (Cardinalis phoeniceus)

The Vermilion Cardinal sports a vibrant red color similar to the Northern Cardinal but is native to Colombia and Venezuela. They share the same distinctive features with other Cardinalis species, such as a conspicuous crest and a thick, strong conical bill.

All three species of cardinal measure between 19 and 22 cm in length and exhibit sexual dimorphism, with males showcasing more red in their plumage while females have a predominance of gray.

The three cardinal species are known for their distinct crest – a tall, triangular shape of feathers on their head, and their thick, stubby, triangle-shaped beaks. They are common backyard visitors and can be found in deciduous and mixed woods, adapting well to cities and suburbs.

Why Blue Doesn’t Exist In Birds

The color of a bird’s feathers is primarily determined by pigments, which are chemicals that absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others.

For instance, carotenoids are pigments that reflect yellow, orange, or red light. Therefore, birds that consume a diet rich in carotenoids, like cardinals, display these colors in their plumage.

However, blue is an exception in the avian world. Unlike other colors, blue is not a pigment but a structural color. No bird species actually has blue pigments. Instead, they rely on an interesting phenomenon called light scattering, similar to how a prism functions, but much more intricate.

How does this happen? Blue feathers are composed of tiny air-filled pockets surrounded by a protein called keratin. These pockets are so minuscule that they fall into a category of tiny structures known as nanostructures, somewhere between microscopic and molecular sizes. They’re even smaller than the wavelength of visible light, which is why they work.

When visible light hits the feathers, it interacts with the keratin-air nanostructures. The size of these nanostructures matches the wavelength of blue light. While other colors pass through the feather, the blue light is reflected back to our eyes. This is why crushed feathers turn brown – once the nanostructures are destroyed, the bird’s true colors are revealed. This also explains why you don’t see blue when you flip the feather over – the “prism” is now on the wrong side.

The blue color we see in birds like blue jays or indigo buntings is due to the way their feathers refract, or bend, light. Therefore, even if a cardinal underwent a pigment mutation or abnormality, it would not result in a blue coloration.

In reality, there is no such thing as a blue cardinal (or any true blue bird for that matter). What you are actually seeing is a bird that appears blue and shares similar features to a cardinal bird.

Birds Commonly Mistaken for Blue Cardinals

Several blue-colored birds bear striking resemblances to cardinals, leading to misidentifications. Here’s a rundown of these birds that are often mistaken for the mythical blue cardinal.

Remember that although these birds may appear blue, they are not truly blue. However; for the purpose of the article, we will describe how they look to the naked eye.

Blue Grosbeak

The Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea) is often considered the most likely candidate to be mistaken for a blue cardinal. These medium-sized songbirds belong to the Cardinalidae family, just like cardinals. Blue Grosbeaks exhibit a deep blue color with brownish wing bars. However, unlike cardinals, they lack the striking crest and are not as commonly seen.

Blue Jay

Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) share a lot of the same habitat and range as cardinals, making them another bird species that is often mistaken for blue cardinals. Although they are larger, more aggressive, and noisier than cardinals, Blue Jays also display a regal crest on their heads, similar to cardinals. They are known for their striking blue feathers and intricate patterns on their tails.

Indigo Bunting

The Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) could also be mistaken for a blue cardinal due to its similar body shape and shared range. These birds are smaller than cardinals but known for their vibrant blue wings and body.

Tufted Titmouse

The Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), a small songbird species, could be mistaken for a blue cardinal due to its gray color that sometimes appears as blue. The head crest and black forehead of the Tufted Titmouse could lead to accidental identification as a “blue cardinal.”

Florida Scrub Jay

The Florida Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens). This bird is endemic to the state of Florida and is the only species of bird exclusive to the Sunshine State.

With its overall blue hue, it could easily be mistaken for a blue cardinal at first glance. However, upon closer inspection, you’ll notice that it lacks the distinctive crest that cardinals have, and its shape is different from that of a cardinal.

Steller’s Jay

Lastly, we have the Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri). This bird boasts a vibrant blue and black color scheme, and its large size and prominent crest might lead one to mistake it for a blue cardinal.

Native to western North America, the Steller’s Jay is known for its bold and inquisitive behavior. Despite its similarities in appearance to the cardinal, it belongs to the Corvidae family, which includes crows and ravens, rather than the Cardinalidae family.

No Blue Cardinals, But Plenty of Blue Birds

While the myth of the blue cardinal continues to intrigue birdwatchers and enthusiasts, the truth is that no such bird exists. Cardinals are primarily red, gray, or in rare cases, yellow. What often leads to misidentification are other blue-hued birds that share similar characteristics with the cardinal.

Understanding the science behind bird colors and becoming familiar with different bird species can help in accurate identification and deepen the appreciation for the diversity and beauty of our avian friends. While we may not have blue cardinals, the birdwatching world is still filled with a plethora of stunning blue birds waiting to be admired and appreciated.

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