By Michael Leach
What could prompt a cardinal to sing on the recent near-zero mornings? Personally I find little to sing about these days, especially with frozen tonsils a distinct possibility when inhaling deeply.
Certainly this early bird can’t expect to be the first at the worms. They’re close to China by now to escape my permafrost backyard.
If the male of the species does something seemingly stupid, like singing in the rain or arctic temperatures, instincts relating to sex or territory are usually to blame. Could it be he will win choice territory with these daring, macho solos? In recent years I’ve noticed male cardinals start singing in early February. My guess is growing day length could be the trigger, rather than temperatures.
Yet in a few weeks temperature will play a part. Temperature helps time the birds’ songfests, not their desire to make morning coffee a more pleasant experience.
Birds need to send their messages as far as possible. While they probably know little more than I do about the physics of sound, they’e learned to take advantage of air temperatures.
In her engagingly educational book, On Looking: 11 Walks with Expert Eyes (Scribner), Alexandra Horowitz writes delightfully about walks she took with gurus in various fields of study. One is a sound designer and engineer, who works in theaters and many other venues. Birds take advantage of air inversions according to him.
Sound moving though a warm layer of air, with a cool layer nearby, travels farther before weakening and fading away. “This is why you will hear the most birds singing at dusk and dawn. After a cold night, when the earth is chilled, the ground layer is cool and the layers above the treetops are warmer …,” Horowitz writes. “A bird singing at dawn can send his tuneful song farther along the treetops than it otherwise would.”
At noon few birds sing because the warm air diffuses the sound making singing a wasted effort. (Perhaps, like me, they prefer a short siesta.)
All this is fine for warmer weather singing but this daring cardinal reminds me of Thomas Hardy’s poem, “The Darkling Thrush.”
The poet describes a depressingly bleak winter dusk, something all Midwesterners have experienced once too often this bitter season. He hears a thrush “… in blast-beruffled plume” singing “..a full-hearted evensong of joy illimited.”
So little cause for caroling
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Forgive me science, but this cardinal is a glowing, red herald of brighter days ahead.