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Commentary A springtime fashion show in the treetops

By Eric Dinerstein

Life literally bursts from the Earth and the sky in April to take to the sweet task of making the next generation. Flowers advertise their reproductive organs using fanciful colors and enticing smells. Birds sing, and frogs croak, all in the hopes of finding lovers during the all-too-short, now-or-never mating season.

Humans, too, hear flirtations call. We shed our winter coats and start to show skin. On sunny days, Philadelphians put on a human peacock parade, although instead of feathers, we have Prada dresses, coifed hair and Gucci bags. While most of us cant take our eyes off the displays of our fellow humans, birders turn their gazes to the fashion show in the treetops, where birds, too, vie for mates.

In the next few weeks, some of the top models in avian couture will arrive in Fairmount Park and backyards throughout the Mid-Atlantic. Just as People magazine annually crowns the most beautiful people, six of the nations leading ornithologists have selected the most beautiful birds in North America. There were several ties, so 15 birds emerged as winners:
1. Scarlet tanager
2. Blackburnian warbler
3. Golden-winged warbler
4. Prothonotary warbler
5. Baltimore oriole
6. Green jay; swallow-tailed kite; wood duck
7. Harlequin duck
8. Chestnut-sided warbler
9. Magnolia warbler
10. Hooded warbler; ivory-billed woodpecker; northern cardinal; painted bunting

Number one is no surprise to me, and if you see a scarlet tanager this year, you will know why. Renowned ornithologist and judge Bruce Beehler once said that sunlight on a tanager casts a color so intense, it can cause retinal burn. In contrast to its brilliant feathers, the tanagers call is nothing more than a hoarse five-note song. Stunning looks and lovely voice rarely come in the same package, bird or human. Still, when you look like a scarlet tanager, you dont need to sing like a nightingale. As a group, warblers took the show. David Wilcove of Princeton University, another judge, calls warblers the Shirley Temples of the bird world. These perky little birds win hearts with their brightly colored feathers. Known to descend on backyards en masse, warblers can make still-budding trees look as if they are covered in ornaments. If you miss a tanager or a warbler, you probably wont miss a northern cardinal. Although common, even downtown, cardinals still enjoy widespread admiration from all but the most jaded birder. I once guided a group of visiting British ornithologists that had birded around the world but never in the States. When they caught sight of a northern cardinal, they stood transfixed, reminding me of the famous American birder who said: If you took our blue jay and stuck it on top of some mountain in Mexico, amateur ornithologists by the thousands would make a pilgrimage to see one of the most magnificent birds on the planet. But because it is in nearly everyones backyard, we ignore it.

I know I will never fail to notice these top-10 birds: the intensely scarlet tanager, the saffron-on-black warbler, the black-and-orange Baltimore oriole, and even the northern cardinal. Is their beauty for their own kind only, or is it part of natures big flirt, meant to rouse us from our winter slumber? Just as we all delight in spring fashions and the beautiful people who wear them, I am drawn again to the beauties in the boughs.

Reprinted by kind permission of the author – this piece just appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer4th July 2014