The cardinal is a favorite bird on Christmas cards—that startling red presence against the white snow. But for me, cardinals are always linked in my heart to the first sign of spring in a frozen winter world. On some random day in mid- to late February, the male can be heard heralding the coming seasonal change with his “cheer, cheer, cheer” spring song. Sitting on a branch at the very top of a leafless tree in the bright winter sunshine, he sings of the coming of warmer, light-filled days, of flower bulbs pushing up out of the ground, of grass turning green. And of the spring migration of birds who have wintered in Central and South America.
House finches and chickadees begin singing their spring songs in February too. Soon, over-wintering robins and returning red-winged blackbirds, goldfinches, and phoebes are part of the morning chorus. By late April and early May, migrating birds are passing through New England in large numbers. This is what we in Massachusetts dream of and look forward to during winter’s months of snow, ice, and freezing rain. Especially those of us who will soon spend countless hours with binoculars pressed to our eyes, craning our necks upward in order to catch a glimpse of migrating warblers, orioles, tanagers, and thrushes.
This has been a challenging winter. The frigid temperatures and seemingly endless snowstorms, coupled with heavy layered clothing indoors and out, have made me daydream longingly of California and Florida. Better yet, Costa Rica, where many of our migrating birds spend the winter, and others live year-round. Still, here I am in the Northeast, and I am reminded that loving “what is” is part of living each moment to the fullest on planet Earth, wherever you happen to be. The sun rises and sets in an extraordinary display of color and light in any given month, no matter the weather. The cardinals brighten our days all winter long. Their very existence holds the promise of spring.
And, on that February day when the male cardinal begins to announce his territorial presence with song, all other thoughts recede into the background. Spring is coming, no doubt about it. The earth is giving birth to life one more time. How can you not celebrate with such a steadfast harbinger of hope and wonder—the bright-red, cheer-full cardinal?
“If I was the song that entered your heart/then I was the music of your heart, that you wanted and needed….”—Mary Oliver, “Red Bird Explains Himself”