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  • Sara Webley

Rufus the Chirpy Cardinal

Updated: Apr 7, 2021

When I wrote my middle grade nature-fantasy Zo in the Roosting Tree, I knew Zo the crow needed a best friend. So Rufus the young cardinal became Zo’s birdy buddy, flying high with her in the clouds, playing games like Flip-Flap and Dropoff, and helping her act like a bird. Because Zo isn’t really a bird inside—she’s a human girl!

One reason I chose Rufus is that young Northern Cardinals are pretty silly looking birds. Before they grow into adults, cardinals have splotchy feathers, a messy combo of tan, brown, gray, and red. I’ve heard young cardinals called “dorky teens.” So illustrator Robin Prisland came up with her wonderful image of Rufus: cheery, goofy, and full of energy.

When they’re about a year old, cardinals “molt.” That means they lose their young feathers and grow a brand-new set of adult feathers. Males grow the bright, unmistakable red feathers we call cardinal red. And black feathers grow in a circle around their red-orange beaks. Why do adult males have such fancy, dazzling feathers, but females’ feathers are pale brown with just a little red? Well, if she’s harder to see, the mother cardinal can avoid getting caught by a predator while she’s nesting and caring for her babies. Dad gets all the attention!

Another reason I chose a cardinal for Zo’s birdy buddy was that my own dad loved cardinals. He used to sit on a yellow director’s chair outside the back door of our house, calling to the cardinals in the yard. Thew! Thew! Sometimes they called back to him. Years later, when my dad died and my sister and I were clearing out his apartment, I stepped outside to the little porch. As I stood there, a cardinal flew to the railing right near me, then flew away . . . and I got to say good-bye to my dad. I’ll always remember that.

Did you know that the Northern Cardinal is the official state bird of the most US states—seven in all? That’s how much we love them. And I loved creating the character Rufus because he’s so chirpy and fun. Like all the characters in Zo in the Roosting Tree, Rufus is based on real nature. But of course he’s a fantasy bird, so he doesn’t have to follow all the cardinal rules!

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