An appreciation of cardinals

"They’re a perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, and style: a shade of red you can’t take your eyes off." 

There’s been a male Northern Cardinal singing in my neighborhood since early January. Sometimes it’s in our lilac bush, other times on a telephone wire or in the neighbor’s locust. This one cardinal has been a literal bright spot, its brilliant red in sharp contrast to the grays and browns of winter branches. 

They start singing earlier than other birds, and when they do, it’s with a few liquid, slurring notes that ring across the neighborhood. This winter singing appears to be territorial, year-round residents that are mated for life, they have the luxury of time. It’s a head start that provides an advantage over competing birds. The pretty females get in on the singing, too, which is a bit unusual.

I’m reminded of a comment in the birding documentary, “Birders: The Central Park Effect,” by a gruff New Yorker, it went something like this: 

“If you can’t appreciate the common birds, the cardinals, you’re finished. Why even keep looking?”

Truer words have never been spoken.

All About Birds puts it this way:

The male Northern Cardinal is perhaps responsible for getting more people to open up a field guide than any other bird. They’re a perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, and style: a shade of red you can’t take your eyes off. 

Starlings come in murmurations, crows in murders, and magpies in a parliament. It doesn’t appear there’s an official term for a flock of cardinals. But If there was such a term for cardinals, for me it would be an appreciation

Cardinals don’t tend to be found in groups, though there are exceptions to this. I’ve seen an appreciation of a half-dozen cardinals recently, on a trip to Axehead Lake in the Cook County forest preserves last fall. It seems non-breeding season is the rare opportunity to see them flock together. 

Cardinalis cardinalis weren’t always this widespread in the north, but have found cover in suburban yards with plenty of bird seed to go around.

January, February and even early March can be something of a doldrums in yard birding. But when this cardinal goes up to a treetop to belt out a song before dawn, it’s easy to remember that a chorus of spring birds are on their way to do the same.

We’re making a push for “Monty and Rose 2” fundraising all this month. Won’t you make a contribution to support the creation of a second film about Chicago’s Piping Plovers? A contribution of any amount makes you eligible for a drawing to win “The World of Monty and Rose,” an original, hand-painted watercolor map featuring Lake Michigan plover hotspots.