The Cardinal

To those not in the know, one of the stranger aspects of birding is how often a bird is “seen” by its vocalizations alone.  

“Wow, you saw a pileated woodpecker?” one might be asked.

“Yeah, up at the preserve . . . it sounded close!”

“Wait.  You mean you just heard it and didn’t see it?”

“Uh, yeah.”

– awkward pause –

Recently I had the opportunity to sit in the woods for two weeks at a Land Trust preserve just outside of Huntsville.  I was administering two camps, and, among other tasks, my job was to hold down the fort, staying at the pavilion while the campers and their hosts were out on the trail. 

Oh, darn.

Staying in one place in the woods isn’t something I do often, and I’ve never done it for the better part of two days, much less two weeks.  It was wonderful, mostly because of the birds.

The first day – within the first hour, actually – I caught the briefest glimpse of three birds moving through the trees.  No sound, just movement.  Larger than a songbird, but I had no idea what they were.

It wasn’t long, though, before I heard them, well out of sight.  They were calling for food, seemingly reminding the adult birds that they weren’t quite on their own yet.  Young Cooper’s hawks, based on their size.  They had the tails and wings of an accipiter, but were larger than a sharp-shinned hawk.

Over the course of the two weeks, I was aware of them almost constantly, and eventually saw them clearly as they moved through the trees overhead.  They weren’t the only raptors I heard, though, as red-tailed hawks screamed over the nearby valley and a barred owl hooted deep in the woods.  Albeit silently, vultures rode the winds rising from the hills.

But it was a cardinal that I’ll remember for a long time.

Cardinals aren’t especially uncommon here in north Alabama.  In fact, they’re a bird I see nearly every day.  What made this cardinal special, though, was how the kids came to see him.

I do a bird activity where I’ll ask a group to stand quietly with their eyes closed.  In preparation, I’ve asked two or three of the participants to keep their eyes open, and when I point to them simply say, “Hello.”  As each person speaks, I ask the group to try to identify the speaker.

It’s not a difficult activity, and the participants usually enjoy their success as they’re able to name each of those who talk.  The point, I say, is that each of us has a different voice.  We might say similar things, but we’ve learned how to identify one another based on the qualities of our vocalizations.

It’s the same with birds, more often than not.  They have different songs, but they also have different voices that we can learn to recognize.  I didn’t do that activity during the camp as a group, but there were a few times when I talked about it with some of the kids. 

And that cardinal?  Well, he was special to me because by the end of each week there were campers who would say, “Mr. Tim, the cardinal’s back!” without the need to actually see him.  They knew his voice, and that, to me, was something to celebrate.

14 thoughts on “The Cardinal”

  1. Cardinals are one of the few species of birds that I can recognize when I hear the “pew-pew-pew” song. That is a great game you do with the kids! I look forward to hearing more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To me, one of their vocalizations sounds like they’re saying “cheeseburger cheeseburger cheeseburger!” They are a beautiful bird, and I love having them around!

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  2. Birding by ear is a beautiful thing. I actually find it as fulfilling as actually seeing them. Their calls and songs bring me much joy. You are doing wonderful work with these young people and I am certain at least one of them will point out a cardinal to a friend or family member because of their time with you in the woods.

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    1. I agree that hearing them is as fulfilling as seeing them. I can step out my back door on any given day and hear the cardinals, the towhees, and the jays. They’re there, and I greet them by name!

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  3. This sounds amazing! I love the way you weave information into this post; I feel like I learned so much. And the vocalization activity! can I link to this post as I work through one about student voice in writing?! Amazing! My favorite, though, is “Oh, darn.” I giggled as I imagined how “tough” it must have been to hold down that particular fort. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Morgan, I”m glad you enjoyed the slice. You’re certainly welcome to link this, and I hope it’s helpful. Bird voices are similar to people voices in that everyone’s is at least a little bit different, and individuals can have different voices depending on what it is they’re trying to say. Good luck with your post!

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    1. Diane, I’m glad you enjoyed this. Neighborhoods, in my opinion, are wonderful places to listen to birds as the territorial aspect of things brings a degree of regularity and a limited number of species. Porches, too, are a wonderful thing!

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  4. How cool! I love the activity you describe, and even without participating, I know exactly what you mean. We’re at a cottage on a small island this week, and after two days I can identify the loons, some female Mallards and, of course, Canada geese. We have a Lab with us, so I haven’t seen too many others, though my friend saw a blue jay today. I love that your time at the pavilion was a good thing for you. How wonderful to get to “know” some Cooper’s hawks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amanda, thanks for your comments and for sharing your time at the cottage. When I was younger I took a few trips to Canada to canoe. The loons were my favorite, and I still thrill to their call when I (rarely) hear it. We actually have loons that over-winter in north Alabama, but they’re few and far between.

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  5. I thoroughly enjoyed your story, because I am becoming a birder. And yes, sometimes I ‘see’ the birds strictly from their call or song. Ironically when I was younger, I used to laugh at ‘old people’ who were birders and now, I’m that older person that gets pure joy seeing, hearing, and watching birds. Why is that?

    Liked by 1 person

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