Cardinal Alert

Being the 10th in a miscellany of short posts to mark the 12 days of Christmas.

A peripheral-vision flash of red catches the centre of my attention.  One of the cardinals living somewhere in the adjacent linear park flits into our backyard and out just as quickly.  Is he—and it is definitely a he, this time, given the intense colour of the plumage—just a bit subject to attention deficit disorder?  He no sooner lands than he moves on to a new perch.  Rock.  Fence.  Tree.  Gone.

If cardinals did not exist, who could imagine them?  Maybe they would make a modicum of sense in equatorial realms, but in this winter-heavy, grey land that is our National Capital Region, they are nothing short of unimaginable.  Unimaginable but, thankfully, not unidentifiable.   

Cornell’s birding site offers the opinion that The male Northern Cardinal is perhaps responsible for getting more people to open up a field guide than any other bird.  Having opened a field guide for exactly the same reason—What was that?!—I won’t ask for a supporting research citation: it seems intuitively obvious to me.

Bird watchers tell of two populations: a fair-weather crowd, here for the summer but decamping to points south as soon as the temperature drops or the days shorten, and a sturdier northern contingent, for whom our winter seems like fair weather.  All this talk of cardinals on the move lends some credence to travellers’ tales of the sky turned crimson by migrating flocks.  The mind boggles.

When summer is in full leaf, sometimes we hear the cardinals without seeing them, their distinctive call being all that announces their presence.  But sometimes the timing is just right: a casual glance out the office window catches one as it does a touch-and-go manoeuvre on the fence.  A glance up from the breakfast table sometimes catches one on the fly.  And when it does happen, something inside settles.  Three years of sharing this space with these unexpected, undeserved and entirely improbable flashes of red has not staled their infinite variety, as the Bard more or less said.

Surely these cardinals grace our backyard and traverse our airspace many more times than we happen to notice them.  And this, perhaps, is their greatest gift.  Seen or unseen, here or gone, they are, nonetheless, always in this world with us.  The joy they bring by their occasional visible presence need not disappear in their apparent absence.  Unlike the birds themselves, flitting in and about our neighbourhood, the joy they bring can remain in our hearts year-round.

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