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Inside the Outdoors: 'What cheer' at 15 degrees below zero

The bird I was hearing proclaimed "What cheer ... what cheer ... what cheer!" Or, so the bird people would interpret the sound of this male northern cardinal, who at this very inhospitable time of year and hour of the morning had begun to announce his readiness for courtship. Minus 15 degrees may not arouse cheer in humans, but it was no impediment to this soulful cardinal. Photo illustration, Metro Creative Graphics, Inc.

In the last week of February, on a morning that would prove to be the coldest of the week, I trudged out in the biting pre-dawn to fire up the family chariot so it would be warm when it was time to leave. Inside, the internet web site Weather-dot-com had announced an outdoor temperature of 15 degrees below zero. The vehicle's motor turned over grudgingly, but after several spins it fired up.

On the way back indoors, over the motor's protests I heard a series of two-note calls that seemed to come from a treetop nearby. Ornithologists—bird scientists—like to translate the songs of birds into an approximation of human speech. They'll tell you that the quail calls out "Bob White ... Bob White," or the white-throated sparrow sings "Pure...Sweet...Canada, Canada, Canada." The bird I was hearing proclaimed "What cheer ... what cheer ... what cheer!" Or, so the bird people would interpret the sound of this male northern cardinal, who at this very inhospitable time of year and hour of the morning had begun to announce his readiness for courtship.

Minus 15 degrees may not arouse cheer in humans, but it was no impediment to this soulful cardinal. Perhaps its courageous crooning should be a ray of hope and cause for cheer in us, too. The cardinal's pre-nuptial activity is one of the first and most dependable signs—premature thought it might seem—of the beginning of the cycle of new life that comes with the spring.

We can use an infusion of hope right about now, after being seriously misled on Groundhog Day. The groundhog saw his shadow, which by legend should foretell just six more weeks of winter, and would place its endpoint at the middle of March; mere days away. With snow cover that has only deepened since the groundhog brief appearance, and temperatures that have pin-balled between melting and a deep-freeze, any sensible odds-maker would declare the groundhog's prediction to be a losing bet. The cardinal's announcing his readiness to find a mate is therefore an act of defiant hopefulness.

The bird books—like the Audubon field guide—tell us that cardinals "may be heard at any time of year, rather than just in the spring when most other birds are singing." But while this may be generally true of these year-round residents, there is clearly a difference as spring approaches. The instinct to mate brings out competitiveness in male cardinals, just as it does in a buck whitetail deer in November, or in young men who all happen to be attracted to the same young lady.

Beginning right about now, the male cardinal's "What cheer" calls intensify, and carry a message to any of its kind who may hear it. It's a claim to territory and an announcement to potential mates that the singer is a suitor worthy of notice. Male cardinals will challenge and attack other males that intrude on their territory; they've even been known to attack their reflection in windows or mirrors.

As is the case in Nature generally, this is all about earning the privilege of passing on one's genes to the next generation. Those that are most successful in defending a territory and attracting a willing female will pass on their genes. Those that are not, will not. "Survival of the fittest" is as much about genetics and the future as it is about victory in competition and combat today.

Like many of the songbirds that are with us throughout the winter, cardinals survive in this harshest of seasons mostly on the fruits of the last growing season; meaning, the seeds, berries, fruits and buds that shrubs and trees produced before leaf-fall and freeze-up last autumn. They subsist on these wild foods, plus the generosity of those who place sunflower seeds and other goodies in their bird feeders in winter.

Some songbirds continue to find insects throughout the winter by probing beneath tree bark and in crevices where they are concealed in their "big sleep" over the winter. One of the best examples is the white-breasted nuthatch, whose bill is pointed and perfect for such dining explorations, and whose body and feet are well-suited to clinging to tree bark as the nuthatch searches the limbs and trunk from the top down—upside down—in this search.

But the cardinal's eating equipment is very different and not especially well suited to this kind of foraging. Its thick, short bill is built for power, rather than probing small spaces. For now, until insects are awake and active, cardinals must subsist on wild seeds, buds, what withered fruits remain and feeder fare. As spring progresses and nutritional needs are greatest—when a female cardinal is producing eggs, and when there are hatchlings to be fed—protein-rich insects will be more available and cardinals will feed on them.

As familiar as they are today, and as often as we admire them at our feeders—or on the ground below, where they actually prefer to feed—northern cardinals are perhaps mis-named. The first recorded sighting in Minnesota was in 1875, and it was the 1920's or 1930's before cardinals were common as far north as the Twin Cities. They now can be found into southern Canada. Some attribute this northward expansion to the growing popularity of winter feeding; others to land use changes, and a proliferation of landscaped backyards with shrubs and gardens, as well as more urban and suburban parks.

Perhaps it's a combination of the two. But whatever the reason or reasons, a cardinal's song at dawn on a frigid February or March morning is indeed a source of cheer.