The Cardinal Sings: Spring Is Nigh

The Northern Cardinal doesn’t sing in winter, at least this far north. It communicates with a softer chirping call until the days grow longer, when its loud whistling songs can again be heard.

I always expect to hear the Cardinal’s first “spring” singing in February in Eliza Howell Park. In 2020 I heard it on February 12. This year, it was on February 17, the coldest morning of tbe winter, when the snow cover was the deepest.

The snow was undisturbed in most areas of the park about 24 hours after the snowfall ended. The combination of a zero degree night and deep snow had apparently led most mammals to declare “a snow day” and stay in their shelters. About the only tracks visible, apart from a few scattered squirrel ones, were those of deer. Deer had been out browsing — and creating a number of crossing routes over the river.

The winter birds were active, however, foraging in the trees. I saw or heard 13 species, a high number for the middle of February.

Though I have been expecting to hear rhe Cardinal sing one of these days, it still caught me somewhat by surprise. Cardinals are one of the minority of song bird species in which both males and females sing. (The Cardinal photos here were taken at other times and locations.)

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

The Cardinal is traditionally a more southern bird, spreading north gradually in the 20th century. It is now one of the most best-known yard and park birds in southern Michigan. It does not migrate.

I was reminded of the attractiveness of this common bird a couple of years ago while doing some bird watching in Washington state. In a brief conversation with a local birder, I was asked if we had cardinals in our area. He envied those who did.

(Range map is from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

When the Cardinal starts singing in February, the message is clear: winter is moving toward its end and it will soon be time to begin the cycle of life again.

When I heard the Cardinal sing this week, I began to think of Cardinals nesting in the park. Perhaps the singer and its mate did as well.

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