When Cardinals Start to Sing: An Early Announcement of Spring

With the arrival of February, many of us are looking forward to Spring. While Groundhog Day exemplifies an eagerness for winter to wane, it is not itself one of nature’s signs of the change coming.

One sign that does announce that Spring is definitely on its way here in Michigan is provided by a common year-round bird — the Northern Cardinal.

Photo by Margaret Weber
Photo by Margaret Weber

Cardinals are common, easily recognized, and well-liked — the state bird of 7 different states, the most of any species. Their familiarity might lead us not to appreciate how special they are. I remember being impressed a few years ago by the envy evident when a bird watcher in Washington state asked me: “Do you have Cardinals where you are?”

Northern Cardinal is originally a more southern species (the “Northern” in the name is in comparison to South American species of cardinals) that began to populate lower Michigan the 1800s. Deforestation provided additional suitable habitat for them.

The range map is from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

They do not migrate, but their winter behavior is differen. They often forage in small flocks now. In Eliza Howell, I have been seeing a group of 6-8 fairly frequently.

Cardinals are named after cardinals in the Catholic hierarchy, who wear red robes. And in keeping with that connection, some people refer to a flock of Cardinals as “a college of Cardinals.” But the Vatican college of cardinals is all male while a flock of Northern Cardinals includes both sexes. So I prefer another term sometimes used for a flock of Northern Cardinals — “a radiance.” “Radiance” seems to fit well — warm, bright, cheerful,

Photo by Margaret Weber
Photo by Margaret Weber

Cardinals do call in winter, a call that is often described as a “metallic chip,” but, at least in this area, they do not sing their loud clear songs these winter months.

I expect to hear their “cheer, cheer, cheer” syllables again in the park starting about the middle of February. Last year I first heard it on February 17, the previous year on February 12. The singing signals a transition from winter groups to breeding pairs, an announcement that Spring cometh.

Winter is definitely still here; the park is as cold and snowy as it gets.

Winter is here, but, beginning about the 10th of February, I will adjust my route to make sure I include the areas breeding pairs of Cardinals usually select.

And I will listen for them to start singing. When I first here it, I know I can honestly say Spring will be here soon.

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