Morning Song

Each morning between 6:00 and 6:30, a male cardinal perches in the arbor vitae at the back of our yard and sings in the predawn darkness.  His melodious whistles serenade his mate, define his territory and bring cheer to the cold morning.

When the sun is higher, he whistles a more intricately patterned call.  Soon his mate comes to feed at the suet brick while he watches from the cedars, a red ornament decorating the green fronds. His lady is softly colored in olive and brown highlighted with pinkish red.  I haven’t heard her song yet this year, but female cardinals are able to sing as lovely as males, and soon she will join him — especially when they begin nesting, to communicate location and the need for food.

This cardinal pair has nested in our hedge for the past two summers.

This cardinal pair has nested in our hedge for the past two summers.

Why does the sight of a cardinal bring joy to so many people? Cardinals are common, year-round residents throughout most of Minnesota, the eastern United States and Mexico. Yet, spotting a flash of red in a tree top, at a feeder, or in a garden is always delightful.  For me, it is because cardinals sing when most other birds are silent — on frigid late-January mornings and sweltering late-summer afternoons; and because, most summers, they raise a family in the hardwood hedge in our backyard; and, simply for their red brilliance against the winter landscape or among the purple and gold in our September garden.  A common bird, perhaps; uncommonly beautiful, most certainly.

2014 TM Murray; used with permission.

A male cardinal glows in the stark winter woods.  © 2014 T. M. Murray; used with permission.

Quaking Aspen Buds

The season's first tiny catkin buds open on quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides).

The season’s first tiny catkin buds open on quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides).

Shiny, brown buds began to open on a neighbor’s quaking aspen trees today!  Each open bud held what looked like a tiny, soft, gray cat’s paw, similar to a pussy willow bud.  Aspens are members of the willow family, so it’s no coincidence that they bear soft, fuzzy catkins.  The buds will develop into long catkins, which are the aspen’s flowers. They are wind-pollinated and the male catkins will release large amounts of yellow pollen into the air later in the spring.  (According to, poplars and junipers already are releasing low levels of pollen in the Twin Cities.)  The seeds will develop and be dispersed with tufts of soft, white “cotton” before the leaves open.