Monday, March 23, 2009

March Madness

March Madness is at full throttle so it seems like a good time to write about cardinals. Here's the connection. This may take a little while, stick with me if you can.

Back in 1895, the Iowa State University football team traveled to Northwestern University, blowing out that team 36-0. Having attended ISU for graduate school, I can attest to the fact that such an outcome must have been a shocker. The next day the Chicago Tribune headlined the Northwestern defeat as "Struck by a cyclone." That year apparently, many cyclones (as tornadoes were known then) roared through the region. A team name was born -- the Iowa State Cyclones.

However, it wasn't until 1954 that Cy the Mascot was born (stick with me-a cardinal connection is coming). You see, Cy is a cyclone, but he is actually a cardinal, or maybe the other way around. The school colors are (cardinal) red and gold, just like the bird (sort of). Since a cyclone is hard to depict in a costume -- the mascot would trip all over himself trying to lead the fight song -- someone suggested that Cy be a "cardinal-like bird."

In the mid-1980s, during my tenure at Iowa State, the Cyclones had a pretty good basketball team. We piled into the packed Hilton Coliseum to cheer along with Cy and thousands of fans as our team beat the University of Iowa. Those were heady days. I met Srini and our team made it to the Sweet Sixteen.

Now to the real redbird. The male cardinal is singing in the morning - what cheer cheer cheer cheer cheer. He is spectacular in his brilliant red suit, black face, strong, thick bill, and dramatic crest. A pair visits the feeder only sporadically. Mostly I hear their loud chips in thickets and underbrush. I am facinated by the female. She also has a crest, thick, red bill, and black face. Her wings, tail, and crest are tinged with red. It is her body color that I think makes her a bit stunning. Field guides are all over the place in describing her body color -- buffy olive, fawn, yellow-brown, grayish-tan. I think she is red and gold, just like Cy. And female cardinals also sing, although more softly.

The male cardinal is fiercely territorial, fighting his own reflection in a window if need be. Maybe that explains why fans, in a CBS poll, voted Cy as the "Most dominant college mascot on earth." Here's to Cy, ISU, and the redbird, what cheer cheer cheer cheer cheer.

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