Cardinal

(This column was published in the April 21, 1997 Buffalo News.)

My wife's favorite bird is the cardinal and that lovely redbird is one of my personal favorites as well.

Doris missed our neighborhood pair through the entire winter but I heard and occasionally saw the male. Now, however, our backyard resounds almost continuously with his cheery whistles and the female busily searches out nest building material.

The cardinal is one of the few birds I can imitate and that only because its songs are so simple: a series of clear, elided tee-yous, each one sliding downward, often followed by an equally clear series of rising wheets. If you know no other bird song, learn this one. It is indeed a day-maker.

We had every reason to worry about our cardinals after a winter that seems to have been especially tough on feeder birds. Both Christmas Census and Breeding Bird Survey data show cardinal numbers down. Also friends have been telling me that where there had been five or ten cardinals they were seeing only one or two and sometimes none.

Although we have never had those higher numbers near our home, I had a similar experience on last December's Buffalo Christmas Count. Each year on this count we stop at a house on Tonawanda Creek Road which has a large spruce tree and a bird feeder on its front lawn. In past years a half dozen or more cardinals decorated that tree like beautiful red Christmas ornaments. This winter only a few house sparrows ate lazily at the well-stocked feeder; not a cardinal was to be seen.

Newer birders may not realize that the cardinal is a newcomer to this region. It is a southern species that has moved north, probably encouraged and then sustained by the smorgasbord provided them by bird feeders.

But when I was a beginning birder in Rochester I was active for several years before I saw my first cardinal. The event was so important to me that I recall it vividly still. I was in Tryon Park at the head of Irondequoit Bay with Howard Miller, a superb birder who was exceptionally kind to me as a novice. It was my first Christmas Count. Winter had come early and harsh and birds were scarce. We had found only a few chickadees and nuthatches when suddenly a clear whistle came from the distance.

It was a song I didn't know and Howard, an excellent teacher as well as birder, said, "Gerry, I'm not going to tell you what that is. Instead let's hike over to where it is singing. I'm sure that you will then identify it for yourself."

We slogged through the deep snow perhaps a hundred yards until we came to a sumac grove. And there he was, sitting tall on top of an ice-encrusted sumac tassel serenading us with his lovely song. I have added many rare and exotic birds to my life list over the years but none have given me more pure pleasure than that perfect cardinal on that winter morning.

I expect that many people like the male cardinal because of its bright red coloration. That is not what makes it so attractive to me. Its red is no match for the deep rich color of the scarlet tanager's breast nor the helmet of the red-headed woodpecker. Instead I think of it as a Cary Grant among birds, its posture erect, its body light, its movements sure and swift and understated, its manners towards its consort impeccable.

We are delighted to have "our" cardinals again beginning a nest in our junipers. Doris is already concerned about protecting the little family from our neighborhood cat.