For the Birds Radio Program: Cardinal Memories
I started the first day of August in our new millennium in a splendid way—listening to a cardinal outside my window. It evoked lovely memories of my childhood in Chicago. When 1 was very little, whenever we visited my grandpa in the city, I would climb up on his dining room chair to look at his two canaries, and learned to imitate their Beeeeeeeeeeee call. My grandpa told me that he bet I could learn to imitate my neighborhood cardinals, too. I asked him how I’d know for sure that I was doing it right, and he told me to just wait and see.
So I practiced whistling and whistling, and one day while I was practicing up in my bedroom, suddenly there was a cardinal in the maple tree branches right outside my window, whistling back at me, peeking through the window. This was the very first wild bird I ever called in, and I’ll never forget how elated and triumphant I felt.
It’s hard to describe how good it feels to call a wild bird in to you. I imagine that turkey hunters feel at least as thrilled when they successfully call in a tom as they do when they actually shoot it. After calling in various kinds of birds for over 40 years now, I sometimes take it for granted, but this spring I called in a pair of Black-billed Cuckoos, who made some wonderful displays to me when I was teaching a beginning birding class. The class was thrilled to see such an exotic and new bird up close and personal, and I felt wonderfully gratified for making that possible. But even more thrilling was the way the cuckoos looked me right in the eye.
Sometimes birders say pshhh pshhh pshhh to call in birds. Once when I did that I called in a gorgeous male Blackburnian Warbler who hovered right in front of my eyes for several seconds. And when I’ve imitated screech owls in Florida, I’ve called in lots of little songbirds. But there is something uniquely wonderful about making an imitation that is so accurate that it fools birds of that species. Getting a chickadee to respond to your whistle, a Mourning Dove to answer a dove call, or a loon to swim in when I make the loon wail are far more exciting for me.
To make successful bird calls, the first requirement is to be utterly lacking in a sense of dignity. Second, you have to know what the birds actually sound like. When I started, I simply listened to birds outside and practiced over and over out there as well as inside. But bird recordings really helped a lot. The most complete bird recording available is the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs, which is available or can be ordered at bookstores or nature stores. Another really useful one in north country is Wild Sounds of the Northwoods. Both of these recordings are by Lang Elliott, who also wrote a lovely book titled Music of the Birds: A Celebration of Bird Song. Unfortunately, the most beautiful bird songs can’t be properly imitated by a human’s mere larynx-—birds produce their songs through a syrinx, literally their song box, which is far more elaborate than our simple voice box.
But cardinals have a fairly simple whistle, and calling back and forth with mine today brought me back to the days when I was first learning to talk to birds. It’s such a simple little thing to do which has given me a lifetime of happy memories and lovely experiences.