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A Closer Look at Cardinals

Christy Campbell

Cardinal, Mark CatesbyA few years ago I was going about my business in the Museum Shop when I noticed a small crowd of visitors just outside, all gazing upward, snapping pictures, and exclaiming excitedly over something just beyond my field of vision. I stepped outside to see what was going on, and the cause of the furor turned out to be a sight common at Monticello as well as to Virginians and residents of the eastern and southwestern United States and northward into Canada, though not in the far western states – a Common Cardinal, also known as  the Northern Cardinal or Redbird.  

It IS a stunning bird, and perhaps one that we who see it every day take for granted.  The female of the species, though not as brilliantly colored as the male, is still beautiful, and she sings just as loudly and sweetly as her male counterparts.  (In most species of bird, only the male sings.)    The cardinal was designated  Virginia’s state bird in 1950, and is the state bird of six other states as well.  We wouldn’t think of keeping one in a cage today, but back in the late 1700’s and throughout the 1800’s they were highly desired for their red plumage and pleasant song, and thousands were trapped and kept as pets.   Many were even shipped as far away as Europe.  A letter I found on page 136 of Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book (for sale in the bookshop) suggests that Jefferson, while in France in 1788, attempted to acquire at least one cardinal through the efforts of his friend James Madison.   (“…as the red-birds and opossums are not to be had at New York, I will release you from the trouble of procuring them elsewhere…”)   In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act made the trapping and keeping of cardinals as pets illegal.

The folks who were admiring the cardinal outside of the Museum Shop that day probably hailed from a western state outside of the range of the Northern Cardinal.  What I have tried to take from that experience is to always see things as though I am seeing them for the first time, so that the beauty of a thing often seen never becomes invisible to me.

(The above image of a cardinal is from Mark Catesby’s “The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands,” a book which Jefferson owned.  Catesby was an 18th century naturalist, and a framed copy of this print can be purchased from the Museum Shop’s online store.)

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