6:41 a.m. 18 degrees, wind NNE 1 mph. Sky: dense rose and mauve in the
east, a hint of pink in the south, everywhere else a tangled blue, white,
and gray. Permanent streams: ice on backwaters and along the hem of the
main channels, more closed than opened. A strand of song, occluded by ice,
dubbed-over and hollow. Wetlands: without frost, quiet, except for two
furious red squirrels. The chase: up and down pines, the scratching of
bark, a maddening chatter, a leap from one trunk to another, tails in play,
flicking and twitching. I close my eyes and listen. Another jump, airborne.
And a second. Toenails strike brittle bark. Everywhere, pinecones hang like
holiday ornaments, upper branches sagging. Red squirrel freeloading, a
twenty-first-century crisis rarely spoken of. Pond: sealed over, ice
thickest in the south cove, a curved white border near the middle. Thinner
ice elegant feather patterns. Dogs curiously sniffing an otter's trail, a
dent of frozen grasses and weeds, plastered by a dripping coat. Ends in the
water, now closed off by ice.
A hairy woodpecker calls from the bleak, granite outcrop where a hermit
thrush sang his heart out last May, obediently infatuated. The thrush's
voice, intoxicating. The woodpecker's, not-so-much.
I was visited by a cardinal the other morning, only the fourth or fifth
time in more than twenty years—red among the gray squirrels.
In 1971, when William Bartram wrote *Travels, *the cardinal was a bird of
the moss-clad South, splashing color from canebrakes, thickets, and river
edges. At that time, cardinals were unknown in the North. By the late
1800s, they had become fashionable cage birds. Thousands were sent to the
Northeast and Europe, where they perched like canaries in wire baskets, a
sad vestige of Wild America. Their incarceration ended with the passage of
the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
Over the last century, cardinals expanded their range northwest along the
Mississippi River and its tributaries and northeast along the Atlantic
Coastal Plain. Some ornithologists claim the bird's range change a sign of
global warming—nonmigratory cardinals don't store fat. Others suggest a
response to the popularity of bird feeders, as well as two centuries of
habitat change as thickets and clearings, the cardinal's preferred
territory, replaced forests. In 1886, cardinals were casual north of the
Ohio River. By 1895, they reached the great Lakes; by 1910, Ontario. In
1914, they nested on Staten Island. The first cardinal documented in
Connecticut was in 1943, in Massachusetts in 1958, in Vermont in 1962, and
in Maine in 1969. Today, they nest in Nova Scotia.
In the 1960s, cardinals zipped in and out my parents' Long Island shrubs,
brightening the most dismal winter. They gathered sunflower seeds beneath
the feeders; males waged war on the living room window and the side view
mirrors—breath condensing on glass.
Named for the robes worn by Roman Catholic cardinals, the bird caught the
American public's attention. Cardinals are the official bird of seven
states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and
West Virginia. Missouri, home of the Major League Baseball's St. Louis
Cardinals, chose the bluebird to adorn the state seal.