For the Birds Radio Program: Four Cardinals!

Original Air Date: Dec. 12, 2000

Laura has four cardinals in her backyard, making her remember her own childhood, her grandpa, and also Lauren Bacall.

Duration: 4′06″


Seeing a cardinal is extraordinarily unusual in my neighborhood. Once last January I had a single brilliant male for a total of about 20 minutes, and was ecstatic. Then, this fall, I had a female a few times. Cardinal females are much more subtly–even dully—colored than males, but there’s something clean and elegant about them. In November, I found what I’ve yearned to see since we moved to Duluth almost 20 years ago, a pair of them. They came back several times, but then a single female also started appearing now and then. And then one lovely day, I had the pair and the single female at the same time.

Three cardinals. I rubbed my binoculars in disbelief, but there they all were. And then on December 7, imagine my surprise to see four cardinals all in my yard at the same time. The male seems nonchalant about the three females following him about. One seems to be his actual mate, and she spends a lot of her time chasing off one of the other females, but she doesn’t seem bothered by the other female, who wears slightly darker feathers so I can recognize her easily. The group of four was back on December 9, and I’m hoping they’ll become regulars. But even if they don’t, the sheer wonder of such a visitation will leave a lovely and lasting memory.

Why do I love cardinals so much? They’re certainly pretty to look at, but in my mind their beauty is secondary to their song. Male and female cardinals both sing a rich but simple whistle-simple enough that I learned how to whistle by imitating it when I was five or six years old, growing up in Chicago. My Grandpa was the one who encouraged me to try to whistle like a cardinal. I worked and worked at it, and one morning when I was practicing in my bedroom, a male cardinal flew to a maple tree branch inches from my window, peeked in at me, and whistled back. It was the most magical moment I’d ever even imagined-I felt like Sleeping Beauty in the forest singing with all her animal friends. I think that was the happiest moment of my entire childhood-or was the happiest moment when I saw the expression on my Grandpa’s face as I told him about it?

A few years later, when I saw the movie “To Have and Have Not” on TV, I laughed and laughed at Lauren Bacall’s immortal words..

I thought she was hilarious because cardinals were the best whistlers in the world as far as I could tell, and everyone knows they don’t have lips.

Seeing these four cardinals in my backyard brings back a flood of memories of Lauren Bacall and my Grandpa and of me whistling to cardinals as a little girl. I didn’t outgrow them-I remember that even as a high school student when I was far too grown-up, or at least too self­ conscious and inhibited, to skip to school anymore I still whistled to my cardinals, and always felt a deep wave of satisfaction when they whistled back. Now I whistle as I fill my feeders. And I know that if I do it just right, one day one of these Duluth cardinals will whistle back.

And deep in my soul, I know that when it does, my Grandpa will be right there, smiling.