Janesville22.5°

Hark! I hear the cardinal singing!

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Greg Peck
January 29, 2014

When Molly and I stepped outside before dawn for our morning walk today—again much shorter due to the frigid cold on the pup's paws—I paused and listened. I hoped to hear the distant whistle of a male cardinal. Unfortunately, I only heard the hum of a neighbor's heating system, someone warming up a car and distant traffic noise.

I was disappointed. I've been going on morning dog walks almost daily for about 15 years. Each spring, I hear a male cardinal or two or three making that familiar repeated whistle. I thought I had heard a cardinal one morning already last week. No, I thought. It couldn't be. Spring is too far off, and another arctic blast approached. Then on Tuesday, amid frigid cold, I heard one repeatedly and most definitely. But this morning, while circling two blocks, I heard nothing but a crow and a faint little birdcall I couldn't identify.

Then I remembered that Molly and I delayed our Tuesday walk until after 8 a.m. and still only circled one block because of the frigid cold. So I stepped out at about 8:45 this morning, and sure enough—there he was again, chortling to the west.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says the 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. ... Cardinals don't migrate, and they don't molt into a dull plumage, so they're still breathtaking in winter's snowy backyards. In summer, their sweet whistles are one of the first sounds of the morning.”

I read more:

“Both male and female northern cardinals sing. The song is a loud string of clear down-slurred or two-parted whistles, often speeding up and ending in a slow trill. The songs typically last two to three seconds. Syllables can sound like the bird is singing cheer, cheer, cheer or birdie, birdie, birdie. Males in particular may sing throughout the year, though the peak of singing is in spring and early summer.”This nifty website has two links to the bird's calls; the second one sounds like what I hear so often in springtime. But I still wondered: Is this male cardinal call really a sign of spring?

I bounced my question off Gazette columnist Anna Marie Lux, who has spent much more time studying, feeding and writing about birds than I have.

“You are so right about the cardinals,” she told me by email Tuesday. “I'm hearing the chickadees in the morning, even today and yesterday. They are singing their spring songs, responding to the lengthening days, not the temps.”

I likewise bounced my question off a friend, Nancy Nabak of Green Bay. She's historian and board member of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. I've read that, as of last summer, Nancy had surpassed 250 species in her bird-watching endeavors. She has taken stunning photos of birds and has shared some of these photos with me.

“I've seen a few people post (online) that they've heard the cardinal sing, but not too many,” she told me by email. “Can't tell you for sure what he's thinking, but some get an urge to call before others.”

Nancy then followed up by contacting two experts and learned that male cardinals start singing the last week of January every year, triggered by hormones and increasing daylight. Just as my colleague Anna Marie Lux suggested!

Maybe this weekend, that fat rodent known as the groundhog up in Sun Prairie will tell us we have to endure six more weeks of winter. Maybe, too, the male cardinal starts singing every last week of January, regardless of how far off warm weather might be. I'll take his song, however, as a first and most welcome sign of spring anyway!

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.



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