Northern cardinals’ song is a harbinger of spring

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Cathy Carnes, Special to the Times Herald

It’s hard to believe spring is on its way, with the snows and cold temperatures we are experiencing this winter. But as days get longer and temperatures creep up, the birds and other wildlife around us are taking note – like the northern cardinals, which begin their spring songs in January or early February.

The song is distinctive – as is the bird! The male’s signature crest, black mask and bright red hue enliven the winter landscape with a welcome splash of color. The females have their own allure; their coloring is a more subdued, buffy brown. Their crest, wings and tail are tinged with red.

These midsize (8- to 9-inch) songbirds have stout, cone-shaped, orangey-colored beaks, just the right tool for cracking seeds. One of their favorite foods is black oil sunflower seeds. They also eat fruits and insects when available.

Their songs catch our ears, as they are loud and whistling with repeated notes. They have a variety of songs, including “cue cue cue” and “cheer cheer cheer” and “purty purty purty.” Listen for their most common song, a metallic “chip, chip, chip.” This call is multipurpose. It’s used to deter would-be intruders to their territory, to sound the alert for predators and as the female nears the nest. It’s used by both males and females as they bring food to the nest or when they are encouraging their young to leave the nest. Once you learn a couple of the cardinal’s distinctive songs, you’ll find it easy to identify them without even seeing them.

The northern cardinal occurs in good numbers throughout the eastern United States and inhabits a variety of landscapes, including woodlands, farmsteads, orchards, wetlands, streamside thickets and — lucky for us — our backyards. They are considered non-migratory (do not fly south for the winter) and have expanded their range northward. They also make their homes in southern Canada, and south through Mexico, Belize and Guatemala.

In addition to the cardinal, other wildlife is becoming more active this time of year. The bald eagle is busy building its nest and laying eggs. Great horned owls are nesting, woodpeckers start their territorial drumming, bobcats, mink and squirrels are mating and Canada geese will start arriving later in the month from their summer homes in the south.

Add some black oil sunflower seeds to your feeders, and chances are the cardinals will come. And keep an eye out for courting males; they often offer sunflower seeds to the females, hoping to win their affections. Let the cardinal bring some color and song to your winter, as well as the knowledge and comfort that spring is well on its way.