Northern cardinal vs. Downy woodpecker? Madness!

A female cardinal and a male downy woodpecker go head-to-head on Day 2 of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “March Migration Madness.” Stock photo by

How dare the Cornell Lab of Ornithology — in its annual March Migration Madness showdown — pit the renowned “red bird” against the upbeat downy!? Tough call.

Let’s look at the stats.

No fewer than seven states have adopted the cardinal as state bird: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. Only the western meadowlark (six states) and the mockingbird (five states, once six) can boast anything close to that level of per-capita popularity. Coupled with its “season’s greetings” rep, the “card” rivals the dove as a symbol of serenity.

Yet male cardinals can look like angry birds™, my daughter Cassy observes, and it’s not just the whole “seeing red” thing. To me, the cardinal seems most palatable in its female form, as intriguingly painted as the Mona Lisa. Given that the Cornell Lab’s photo leans toward blatant sexism, I may have to lean downy-ward.

Wait. Its downy photo is also male. What gives? Why are males perennially the poster birds?!

For Christmas 2011, I gave my 80-year-old mother her first bird feeder. The whole world knows what a cardinal is, but the discovery of new birds opens new worlds even for our elders who have seen it all. Mom has since marveled at the downy’s strikingly stark black-and-white design, but seems partial to a particular female so dingy she looks gray, clinging to the suet cage defensively, almost in a death grip, for 5-10 minutes at a time.

I love that little bird for delighting my mother.

On the cuteness factor: Sure, “cards” are cute dipping and bobbing their tails in a comic balancing act. But once you’ve seen a baby downy, you can never go back.

On technicalities, both birds are non-migratory; odd in a migration race. Yet it seems I’ve picked the quintessential non-migrant, the tufted titmouse, who lives out its entire life within miles of its birthplace, to win it all. (Note to Lab of Ornithology: Maybe next year, “Migration” Madness should choose only migratory birds?)

Anyway, for today only, my pick is the downy woodpecker, hands down.

Your turn to vote for the Day 2 match-up of the Tweet 16. For inspiration, watch this downy being hand-fed. Awwwwww. Worms are adorable.

Black-capped chickadee vs. Dark-eyed junco: I’ll take the underbird, with the pretty underbelly

Scout first visited my deck on an unseasonably warm Thanksgiving Day 2011.

Day 1 of March Migration Madness, and there’s tension in the air. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has pitted last year’s champ, the beloved black-capped chickadee, against the low-seeded dark-eyed junco, a phantom bird of winter.

C’mon, peeps. “Migration”! It’s in the game’s title! Have you all been conned by the charming chickadee, who is brave and smart enough to light on your heads or feed from your hand? Close encounters with curious chickadees, though wondrous, are a dime a dozen … plus, can you be so sure that the “black-capped” chickadee you so admire isn’t a genuine impostor from down South, say, Carolina? Like twin cousins of “The Patty Duke Show,” they will charm and con you.

That bird you swoon over is not always what you think. And blink, he’s gone, and yet … always there. A commoner, a year-round, non-migratory bird.

The dark-eyed junco is just as brave, if understated, and needs courage for his long journey ahead, back to wherever he goes off-season. When I first encountered this jewel last Thanksgiving Day, a lone scout junco poked his blushing-pink, pearl beak right up to my back door and sunned himself on the deck, a true blessing. First describing the species as a chocolate-coconut macaroon, with more familiarity I’ve begun to think of them as quarter-moon birds, or sparrows dressed for a masquerade ball. He will always surprise you; when you’re looking for something else, he hops into view. I’ll take the underbird, with the pretty white underside and the tux-like “tails,” any day. Especially TODAY.

The C/BC chickadee, or whatever it is, has had its day in the sun. Knock him off his perch (oh, he’ll be back) and give a bottom-feeder a taste — just a nibble — of the limelight.

Get in on all the action at Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Facebook page. And to vote on today’s matchup, peep here. At the time of this writing, chickadee had the home-cooked advantage, 509-236.