One of the most striking and familiar birds that resides in our backyards is the male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). I think you would be hard pressed to find a Georgia homeowner that cannot identify a male northern cardinal. The bird’s brilliant red plumage seems to demand that we look at the common backyard resident that wears such beautiful plumage.
The cardinal is not native to the Old World. As such, I can only imagine what European colonists thought when they spotted a male cardinal for the first time. No bird in their homeland looks anything like this crested, scarlet beauty. It is not surprising that it became known as simply the red bird.
Later it dawned on somebody that the hue of the bird’s feathers was very similar to the color of the vestments worn by a select group of men that were members of the Catholic Church’s Sacred College of Cardinals. Therefore, it seemed reasonable to call the bird the cardinal. People apparently liked the name so well that, to this day, it is still known as the cardinal.
It is interesting to note that members of the Sacred College of Cardinals have been required to wear scarlet vestments since 1274, when Pope Gregory decreed that they do so at the Second College of Lyons.
These clergymen serve as personal advisors to the pope. In addition, they are charged with the important responsibility of electing a new pope.
Who would have ever thought that a decision regarding the clothing worn by special Catholic clergymen made long before a songbird we now know as the cardinal was ever seen by Europeans would have such a dramatic impact on one of our favorite birds?