The Vainglorious Cardinal

Northern Cardinal superbus

Ho hum, thinks the birder from eastern North America: just another Northern Cardinal.

But as our Linnaean Society field trip to Phoenix this past week reminded us, a close look at that bird in the southwestern US and northern Mexico reveals a bird a little less contemptibly familiar than we might expect.

Northern Cardinal superbus

The red cardinals of Arizona are startling and striking, big and long-tailed and long-crested. The species’ best-known field mark, the black mask surrounding the bill, is noticeably reduced compared to the same patch in eastern birds, often not quite meeting across the forehead, making that brilliant red helmet stand even taller.

It’s no wonder that Robert Ridgway found these birds “easily distinguishable.” In 1885, he described a series of specimens from Arizona as belonging to a new subspecies, which he named Cardinalis cardinalis superbus.

In the 70 years after Ridgway’s description of the bird, this distinctive race — one of sixteen most authorities still recognize across the Northern Cardinal’s extensive range in North and Middle America — went by the sensible and straightforward English name of the Arizona Cardinal, a name lost, like so many others, when the 1957 edition of the AOU Check-list created standardized vernacular names for North America’s birds at the species level.

Northern Cardinal superbus

More and more, I think, American birders are returning to the English subspecies names propounded in earlier editions of the Check-list. In this case, though, there’s an alternative better even than “Arizona Cardinal.”

Though Ridgway provided no etymology when he named his new cardinal, it seems likely that he understood superbus to mean simply “superb, outstanding, excellent.” But in real Latin, as opposed to scientifiquese, the word is much richer. From the vaunting ambition of Turnus in the Aeneid to the traditional mortal sins of the medieval church, “superbus” and “superbia” referred to one’s own hubristic estimation of oneself as superb or outstanding or excellent.

Northern Cardinal superbus

Doesn’t this bird look superbus? We could do worse than to call these Arizona birds Prideful Cardinals, glowing as they do in the certainty of their own superbness.