Archived Mountain Voices

A story about darkness, light and the red bird

Ho down down … Ho down dee

Red bird dancin in custody

Way down in New Orleans.

Ho down down … Ho down dee

A jailer stoned & barred the door:

“Red bird soon be dark & dead.”

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Ho down down … Ho down dee

Red bird dancin in custody

Sang his song & flew away.

—modern rendering of The Red Bird Song


What if suddenly there were no songbirds? Hell, I’m told, is like that: hoot owls and buzzards … maybe a night heron or two … the occasional stork … no songbirds down there … a world without bird song would be “dark & dead.”

I wouldn’t want to do without any of the common songbirds that grace our landscape. But if I had to choose the one species I’d keep above all others, I suppose it would have to be the redbird. It is the emblematic songbird of the eastern temperate zone in which I’ve resided all of my life. Indeed, it’s the designated bird for my native state, Virginia, as well as for my adopted home state, North Carolina.

For the most part, we tend to take many astonishing things in our everyday world for granted. What if you had seen but one redbird in your lifetime? That would be a red- letter day in your life for sure. From time to time, we have to pinch ourselves and pay attention to the commonplace.

I sometimes have Elderhostelers in natural history workshops from the far western states that are accomplished birders. Many times … when I’ve asked those folks which bird they’d like to see that they’ve never seen before … they have responded, “I’ve never seen a northern cardinal, even though my mother read me stories about them when I was a child.” What great satisfaction to take them out, look around, and say, “Look over there in that bush … there’s a redbird.”       

Redbirds aren’t great vocalists in the pure musical sense. But their vocalizations are quite varied. Singing is almost exclusively done by male birds … the female cardinal, who also sings, is one of the few exceptions We usually think of them as saying something like “pretty-pretty-pretty” or “right-cheer, right-cheer, right-cheer.” But they must have at least 15 to 20 other vocalizations

My wife and I have observed that redbirds are almost always the first bird species to sing in the morning during the breeding season. And they are always the very last bird to visit our feeders during the winter months. I recently read an account in a birding journal attributing this habit to the fact that their eyes are larger than those of any other songbird species; that is, their eyes are more sensitive to the light.

Whether or not this is the case, these “early to rise and late to bed” tactics are in keeping with the redbird’s personality. They like to be in charge of all the other songbirds in their area. So, they wake them up in the morning and see them to bed at night. Somebody has to be in charge, and it might as well be the incandescent redbird.

The early Cherokees, who were unsurpassed observers of bird life, gave the redbird the onomatopoetic name “to-juh-wa.”

In Myths of the Cherokees (1900), James Mooney records two cardinal stories. The first, “How the Redbird Got His Color,” is simple. A raccoon had tricked a wolf and plastered his eyes with dung so that he couldn’t open them. In return for some red paint “the brown bird” agreed to peck the dung away from the eyes of the wolf, who then showed the bird a rock with veins of bright red pigment.

“The little bird painted himself with it, and has ever since been a redbird.”

From a number of informants in Western North Carolina and Oklahoma, Mooney stitched together one of his most interesting renderings of Cherokee spiritual lore.

The earth became dark after the sun’s daughter was slain. The benevolent Little Men told the Cherokees they must go to “Tsusginai” … to “the Ghost country in ‘Usunhiyi,’ the Darkening land in the west” (also known as Night Land) and bring back the daughter in a box in order to restore light in their homeland.

(In “The Swimmer Manuscript” published in 1932 we are told: In the Night Land the ghost people live exactly according to the native pattern; they live in settlements, have chiefs and councils, clans and families … everybody who dies goes and joins the relatives who have preceded him; they go hunting and fishing, have ball games and dances, etc.)

“The Little Men told them that they must take a box with them, and when they got to ‘Tsusginai’ they would find all the ghosts at a dance. They must stand outside the circle, and when the young woman passed in the dance they must strike her with sourwood rods and she would fall to the ground. They must then put her into the box and bring her back to her mother, but they must be very sure not to open the box, even a little way, until they were home again.”

This they did. On the way home, however, they heard the young woman wailing. She told them that she had no air and was dying. They tried to withstand these pleas, but finally succumbed and lifted the lid of the box “just a little to give her air.”  

“There was a fluttering sound inside and something flew past them into the thicket …”  

In Living Stories of the Cherokee (1998) contemporary Cherokee storyteller Freeman Owl concludes the story in this manner:


They looked over to the bush,

and there was

a beautiful redbird.

And as she sang,

the Sun smiled …

Then they knew that the redbird

was the daughter of the Sun …


It is a story about darkness and light and bird song.


George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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