Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Communing with the Cardinals

When my friends ask me which of the many birds I’ve seen is my favorite, I know exactly what to answer.

I have three.

The carolina wren: It sings its lovely songs - it knows a lot of them - all year, even in the coldest, snowiest winter. It flits around the edges of my yard, is wonderfully colored and easy to identify and I always feel honored when it makes an unexpected appearance at my seed and suet feeders.

The black-capped chickadee: This one will explore just about anything, isn’t afraid to hang upside down while gleaning for seeds and has a lovely song that starts up high and comes down. To me it sounds like “Hey, sweetie.” It will come to the feeder, grab a sunflower seed and fly to a nearby bush to eat. It is inquisitive and isn’t afraid to fly close. Even the “dee-dee-dee” call is calming.

But I have to admit the first among equals is the cardinal. The red of the male or the warm brown (red at the crest and bill and tail) of the female look pretty in a green bush or pine tree. The crested bird is big and easy to identify. It is monogamous (like the wren but unlike the chickadee) and when courting its mate he will give her a seed in a way that looks like a kiss. Both birds sing but the male is more obvious, loudly proclaiming from the top of a tree in spring.

What I like best about the cardinal is it is reliable, coming every day at dawn and at dusk.

We all know the phrase about the early bird getting the worm. I think it refers to the robin, which gets up in the dark to call and then to eat. But robins don’t come to seed feeders. When I am up at dawn I can look out at the feeder and know one of the cardinals will be the first bird to visit. If I am lucky enough to be home at dusk I know it will be the last bird to visit.

At these times I like to stand at the kitchen window and watch the cardinals, communing with them, if you will.

They seem so calm and comfortable with each other, like my husband and myself and other long-married couples I know. The gentle “kiss” could be MH greeting me when he first comes downstairs in the morning. The pair fly together, calling with hard “teeks” as if to say, “I am here, where are you?” “I’m right here, where are YOU?”
In winter I’ve had as many as four cardinal pairs jockeying for feeding position. Like all birds there is a pecking order, with the most inferior and his mate forced to wait off to the side until the others eat - these birds will sit at the feeder a long time cracking the seeds with their large finch bills - before they can have their meal. (I keep a lot of seed on hand.)

It is easy to put human traits to birds but cardinals aren’t people.

I keep four feeders going in winter but the cardinals, being bigger, can only come to the one that looks like a house. Last winter, when the snows were deep and the neighbors didn’t fill their feeders we had so many finches, sparrows and other birds at ours the cardinals would scream at them and attack. It was a horrifying reminder that Nature isn’t always placid and winter can be much harder on the birds.

Remember that the next time you complain about 4 inches of snow on a weekday morning. At least you know where you’ll get your next warm meal.

Winter aside, there are other hazards like cowbirds (which frequently drop their eggs in cardinal nests), hungry hawks and people who chop down a tree or bush with no thought as to what might be nesting inside.

Cardinals are in no danger of becoming extinct - at least not yet.

Give man the time to think of ways to jar Nature’s delicate balance and perhaps the cardinal, along with the rest of us, won’t be around much longer.

In the meantime I’ll watch for the cardinals to make their regular visits at dawn and dusk, a bit of certainty - for now - in an uncertain world.

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