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Birds Among Most Popular Coin Subjects
By Dennis Rainey

It has been my experience since starting the Coin Critters column that collectors of coins depicting birds may outnumber collectors of other specific groups of animals including mammals or butterflies.

My main downfall, according to my wife, is that I prefer collecting any coin with any animal on it. It does not make any difference if it has a backbone or not. Exceptions are coins of the Chinese Lunar Calendar series, which always have a non-specific animal on them such as a snake or rat. These have never appealed to me, although many collect them.

I have told you about the ruby-throated hummingbird and red-breasted nuthatch on coins from Canada in the February issue of World Coin News. In this article I want to tell you about two more birds on Canadian coins and one on a Belarus coin. Each is a common species. One is the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) depicted on the Canada 2008 25 cents (KM 718) and the second is the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) on the Canada 2008 25 cents (KM 717). The Belarus bird is the thrush nightingale (Luscinia luscinia) on the 2007 1 rouble (KM 151).

Northern Cardinal

Is there a favorite species of bird in the United States? I doubt there is a consensus for all of the U.S., but I have a hunch that the northern cardinal is the favorite in the Midwest and eastern U.S. It is the state bird of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia. Then, there are the professional St. Louis Cardinals baseball team and the Arizona Cardinals football team. It is the mascot of the University of Louisville, University of New York at Plattsburgh, Ball State University, Illinois State University, Wesleyan University and probably others. So, let's look at the northern cardinal, or redbird to many. (I will hereafter call it the cardinal.)

In the deserts of California, arid parts of Arizona, New Mexico, southeast Texas and parts of Mexico lives the closely related pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus) that looks like a cardinal but is grayish in color. The name is pronounced "peer-ah-lox-ee-ah." There is one other species in the genus Cardinalis that lives in South America.

The cardinal is 8 to 9 inches long and both sexes have a distinctive crest on the head. The male is dazzling red colored with black around the large conical beak and eyes. The common and scientific names are from the color of robes worn by cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church. The female is a dull grayish in color with a little red. Both sexes sing. Once heard, the male's song is very easy to identify, especially in breeding season.

In Canada, the cardinal has a very limited distribution and is found only in the provinces of southern Ontario and southern Quebec and in Nova Scotia. I found a dubious record from the Winnipeg, Manitoba, area. It is found in eastern and central United States from the Canadian border south into parts of Mexico and Central America (northern Guatemala and Belize). It has been introduced to California, Hawaii and Bermuda. It is a year-round resident and prefers gardens, woodlands, shrub lands and swamps and of course backyards.

About 100 million cardinals range over 2,239,392 square miles. I must add quickly that in the United States and Canada it is illegal to kill, take and posses this species. Do not try to make it a cage bird.

Cardinals eat seeds and fruits (up to 90 percent) but also take insects such as beetles and grasshoppers. Babies are fed almost exclusively on insects. It hunts mainly on the ground. Cardinal lovers soon discover cardinals' fondness for sunflower seeds, especially in winter. The bird easily cracks the seeds with its heavy bill.

The female builds a nest of grass, small twigs and plant fibers in dense shrubs or low in trees. Three or four eggs are laid and incubated for 12 or 13 days. The male may help a little in incubation. The young leave the nest in 12 to 14 days, and as many as four broods are raised each year. Nests are parasitized by cowbirds (Molothrus sp.). Due to high juvenile mortality, the average life span is probably about one year, although there is a record of a banded individual living 15 years and nine months.

Downy Woodpecker

Whereas the cardinal has a limited distribution in Canada, the downy woodpecker is found throughout Canada (and Alaska) south of the treeline, and in most of the United States. It is not migratory. There are 198 species of woodpeckers in the world, 18 in North America (counting the ivory-billed) and 13 in Canada. I am not counting their North American cousins, the sapsuckers and flickers.

The downy is the smallest and probably the most familiar in Canada. The downy is quite similar to the much larger hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus) that is equally widespread in North America.

The black and white downy is 6 to 7 inches long and weighs only 0.75 to 1.0 ounces. It has a white back, white spotting on black wings, black central tail feathers but white-spotted outer tail feathers. Males have a small red patch on the back of the head, but the crown is black.

Woodpeckers' bills, broad at the base, are straight and chisel-shaped. They are formed of bone overlain with a hard covering to enable them to rapidly drill holes in wood.

Another interesting characteristic is the quite long and barbed sticky tongue used to catch insects. The name "downy" refers to the soft white feathers on the lower back (hair-like in the hairy woodpecker). It is a creature of parks, gardens, orchards and woodlands.

Downy woodpeckers require trees, chiefly deciduous, in their habitat to hunt wood-boring insects and chisel out nest holes. They can forage along upper branches, unlike larger woodpeckers that hunt on tree trunks. In spring and summer they feed on flying and hidden insects such as moths, mayflies and caterpillars. They consume enormous amounts of insects, often some of economical importance such as codling moths, bark beetles and scale insects. Many of these insects are fed to the woodpeckers' young. They will eat berries when available.

The bird drills nest holes in dead trees. The male does most of the excavation, but the female may help; it requires two to three weeks to complete. They may also choose an old hole. Clutches of four or five eggs are incubated by both sexes and hatch in 12 days. Both sexes feed the young, and there may be more than one brood a year. Their natural enemies include Cooper's hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, American kestrel and squirrels, who go after the eggs.

Thrush Nightingale

What is the origin of the name "nightingale?" It is from the old Anglo-Saxon "nihtingale" that means "night songstress." It was applied to the common nightingale because it mistakenly was thought that the female sang both day and night. It is actually the male who sings his heart out to attract a female friend and/or to defend his territory, thus keeping people awake all night. (Mockingbirds do the same in my neighborhood.) It is also a very old surname. Perhaps the best known is Florence Nightingale, the British pioneer of modern nursing known as "Lady with the Lamp."

The thrush nightingale was formerly a member of the thrush family (the American robin is a familiar thrush) but now is considered to be an Old World flycatcher, a different family. It is a close relative of the common nightingale (L. megarhynchos) and the two are quite similar in appearance, making identification in the field difficult.

It is migratory and widespread in Europe, Asia and Africa. It breeds in 18 eastern European countries and vagrant in 11 countries in all of Europe. It occurs in 14 Asian countries as well as in 16 African countries and vagrant in two as winter birds. If you go birding to Belarus, you can find this species in forest and dense brush habitats in large protected sites such as Pripyatsky National Park and Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve. It is a common breeding bird in Belarus.

Being a flycatcher, it feeds on a large variety of insects but also eats worms, snails, berries and fruits. There are probably some million pairs of this species in its world distribution, and it is not threatened.


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