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.