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NATURE HAPPENINGS - March 2004

Color of the Month
by Damian Fagan

If I were to assign colors to the months, I would select red for March. Green would be a close second, but I’d save that one for June or July.

So why red? Perhaps it has to do with the house finches that have started their sweet singing in my backyard. From high atop the neighbor’s tree or perched on an old bird feeder, the males sport brilliant red head and body feathers as they belt out their songs. Though they disappeared from my feeders around Christmas, they are back in numbers. Nicknamed “Hollywood finches”, after their original western distributional range, these birds steal the show.

Other current backyard birds that sport some red are the cedar waxwings and ruby-crowned kinglets. The waxwings appear each day in tight flocks held together by constant chattering. Their high-pitched whistles announce their arrival and presence as they work over the hackberry fruit. Spots of red on their wings contrasts sharply to the yellowish tips of the tail feathers.

The kinglets mix in with the house and gold finches; occasionally a male will display its red feathery cap that stays hidden beneath duller colored feathers. The males use these feathers in mating displays, and it seems, from the antics in the backyard, to make some type of statement to the persistent finches.

Farther afield, it is the northern flickers, red-winged blackbirds and spotted towhees that catch my eye. The red-shafts of the flicker’s tail feathers once contributed to the common name of this woodpecker (Red-shafted flicker), but ornithologists changed the name to better suit the bird’s distribution. The red cheek stripe indicates a male; the females lack this moustachial stripe. Their current behavior includes territorial displays, chases, courtship, and drumming on dead snags or the metal light covers by the City ballfields.

The towhees and blackbirds I see at the Matheson Preserve, or hear might be a better definition. Songsters of spring, the male blackbirds select exposed perches and sing their konk-la-reee songs, then chase away rival males. The cacophony of singing males is a true harbinger of spring. Where the blackbirds sport epaulets of red, the towhee, both males and females, have flanks of orange-red and eyes the color of glowing coals.
But it isn’t just the birds that bring bright splashes of crimson to the awakening landscape. Water birch and Utah serviceberry are two woody plants whose bark coloration is red. Found along the streambanks in Negro Bill Canyon, there are water birches growing along the trail with bark smoothed to a satin finish due to the stem-clasping hands of hikers. The serviceberry shrubs may be found in the riparian areas or in drier upland sites. These Rose Family members may still bear some of their reddish fruits from the past season.

Even more of an interrupting sight is the splattering of Indian paintbrush that seem to erupt from the desert soil. These plants perform a slight-of-hand trick - their flowers are not technically red. The plants have red bracts that enclose greenish flowers as a way to lure pollinators. The plants are also partially parasitic – their roots rob other plants of nutrients and water – an advantage for the paintbrush that does not seem to impact the host.

So whether it is in the feather of a bird or the stem of a shrub or the makeup of a flower, I vote for red as the color of March. Bright and brilliant this color shouts “spring!” and after this long winter, that is a welcomed word. And, of course, how could I forget to mention Robin Redbreast (AKA American robin), the (almost) official songster of spring whose whinny and cheery call wake me up each morning.

 

 


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