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Cardinals in winter

By Donald Attwood


Cardinals live here year-round, brightening the winter landscape, yet 60 years ago, none were known to nest in Quebec.

On the Christmas Bird Count, our job was to list all the birds seen in one sector. Every bird counted, including pigeons but not chickens or pets. I was with three experienced birdwatchers, and midway through the morning, we weren’t seeing much – not even pigeons. Then one person exclaimed, “cardinal” with emphasis, and we saw a flash of red. We had a small buzz of excitement, partly because this was the first of its species that day but also because it was a cardinal, a common but charismatic bird.

The Northern Cardinal (to use its official name) lives here year-round. While it’s become a familiar bird of parks and gardens, it settled in Quebec only recently: 1964 was the first year it was observed here in the Christmas Bird Count. In later years, its population exploded faster than anywhere else. Since the 19th century, this species has been expanding its range northward in the US, and now it lives among us.

Human habits account for the cardinal’s expansion. Some regions, like Vermont, have become partly reforested as small farms reverted to woodlands, and cardinals like mixed landscapes with trees. Winters are becoming warmer, so this and other species are shifting northward. In summer, cardinals like suburban shrubs and hedges as nesting sites. (Perhaps to compensate for their showy appearance, cardinals use dense foliage to hide their nests from predators.) And backyard feeders help this bird survive in winter. People who stock their feeders in winter are motivated partly by the hope of cardinals, so it’s a win-win situation.

Cardinals have short, thick bills, ideal for cracking seeds like the black-oil sunflower seeds they prefer. Other birds also like these seeds, though some are not equipped to open the hulls as cardinals do. A chickadee will fly in, grab a sunflower seed, fly to a nearby twig, pin the seed against the twig with its foot, and hammer it open with its tiny beak. A cardinal just sits on the feeder and cracks the hulls in its massive beak.

Male cardinals not only look handsome, they have cheery voices. It brightens my day to hear a cardinal singing in the morning. During a warm spell this January, I heard one singing several times along a trail in Hudson. Did he think that spring was coming early? Whatever his purpose, he offered a spark of colour and melody in an austere landscape.

Early last April, as I was walking around our neighbourhood, I heard three cardinals proclaiming their territories in a call-and-response pattern that seems typical of territorial songbirds. Once I noticed that a cardinal sang one tune while his rival responded with a different song. That set me wondering. Were they sending each other different messages or just different phrasings of one core message: “no trespassing?”

I tried using my smartphone (already indispensable for listing the birds seen and heard on my walks) to record and compare cardinal songs in the neighbourhood. I never became adept with this technology, but I learned a couple of things. First, from one day to the next, a cardinal may change his tune. Whether he does so to copy a nearby rival, or perhaps to show a more impressive repertoire, is open to question. Most often, both males sing the same song back and forth, but they vary the selection from one day to the next.

Second, I learned that, no matter what tune it sings, a cardinal always sounds like a cardinal. (Some birds are famous for not doing this: a catbird often sounds like a cat, a mockingbird can mimic almost any bird plus a variety of other noises, and so can some parrots.) Cardinals seem inclined to sing many variations on phrases they’ve used before.

What makes a cardinal’s voice identifiable, despite all this variation, is a mystery to me. Each new version seems to say, “Here’s another way to do that,” while at the same time saying “It’s me again.” Ornithologists have found that cardinal songs vary by region, suggesting that repertoires change as cardinals in one place try out new versions on each other. When I was growing up near Chicago, I learned to whistle one cardinal song that still seems fairly standard. The songs I hear in Quebec seem to be built around phrases taken from my old Chicago version. My whole life, these birds have commanded attention.