For the Birds Radio Program: Cardinals

Original Air Date: Jan. 7, 2000

How did cardinals make their way this far north?

Duration: 3′50″


North country birds are a colorful lot. Two of the primary colors are each represented by a few vivid birds—red by Pine Grosbeaks, Purple and House Finches, redpolls, and male crossbills; and yellow by goldfinches, Evening Grosbeaks, and female crossbills. Only one of our winter birds is really blue, and since the Blue Jay is Nature’s Perfect Bird, that’s plenty. And if any one of these brilliant birds is lovely against a snow-covered spruce tree, an assortment of them is as pleasing as a fresh box of crayons to a kindergarten.

But there’s one vivid winter bird that we don’t get to see nearly enough of up here—the cardinal. Cardinals were once found only as far north in winter as the snow line, but as railroad right-of-ways started opening up the possibility for finding weed seeds even where snow was deep, and as bird feeders opened up a rich new source of food in winter, cardinals expanded their range northward. Now they are found much more often in the northland than when I moved here 19 years ago, and by the time I have grandchildren they’ll probably be regular breeders, but at this point it’s still an unexpected thrill whenever you see one of these birds. Cardinals have been named the state bird of seven states—more than even the Western Meadowlark, selected by six states, and the mockingbird, selected by five. And the political popularity of cardinals is as justified by its song as its plumage. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of their rich whistle is how they so readily respond to human whistling. Indeed, it was the cardinals in my Chicago suburb that taught me how to whistle as a child.

The only time I’d ever seen a cardinal in my backyard was back in the spring of 1994, when I was coming home after walking my son Tommy to the school bus stop. On the sidewalk, I looked up to see a beautiful male at the top of a backyard tree. But he flew off and never returned. This cardinal sat in my feeder for eleven minutes at about 4 pm, and then came back at 5, after sunset. He was lurking around the back of the yard as it grew dark, checking out a small brush pile just perfect for a cardinal to roost in. Naturally I filled all my feeders with fresh sunflower seed that night, so he’d have a good breakfast when he woke in the morning. Many bird books say cardinals love safflower, so I’ll probably pick some up next time I go out to buy seed.

Cardinals also appreciate a bird bath. I don’t have one that could survive the winter—just an old plastic one that has seen better days—but I will set out a dish of fresh water for him for the next few mornings just in case. There is no guarantee, or even a likelihood, that this cardinal will stick around, but I have great hopes that he’s going to be here for at least a little while, and if he does, I want to make him comfortable and happy. Even if he doesn’t stay here, this bright fellow has given my new year a vivid glow. Thomas Wolfe wrote that “you can’t go home again,” and being from Chicago, I’m just as glad that I can’t, but it’s lovely to think that the cardinals of my childhood are alive and well and have traveled all this way just to find me.