January Silence and Sound

Male cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) typically begin singing during mid-January in Minnesota. (I photographed this fellow on a sunny winter morning.)

The weight of winter silence presses on my ears. Heavy snowflakes drape tree limbs, topple seed heads and cover squirrel nests with a crystalline blanket. Falling snow absorbs the whir of auto engines, which pass almost noiselessly down the street. Even the incessant hum of the airport is muffled.

Suddenly, in the snowy hush a northern cardinal sings: “What cheer-cheer-cheer-cheer.” He repeats his joyful song four times and falls silent. His call momentarily illuminates the quiet. His red brilliance punctuates the black, gray and white of a January snowfall.

It is the first time I’ve heard a cardinal sing since last summer. In Minnesota, they typically begin singing in mid-January and will soon renew pair bonds and breeding territories. I welcome his upbeat melody that, along with the lengthening daylight, signals another milestone on the journey to spring.

Further Reading:

Northern Cardinal (All About Birds)

Northern Cardinal Minnesota DNR

Early Spring Serenade

A male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) sings from his springtime perch .

A male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) sings from his springtime perch.

I like the silence of frosty mornings, but I also miss the music of birds during the winter. Most mornings for the past three weeks, our resident cardinal has greeted the sunrise — cloudy or clear — with song. At first he sang one short burst of bright song. Over the next week, it grew to several minutes of song at dawn and another round later in the morning. Basking in Tuesday’s sunshine and 70°, he sang many times during the day. Later that same day, a mourning dove cooed in a spruce tree, chickadees added their lovely two-note calls, and an American robin joined the serenade with its caroling. However, all went silent when a Cooper’s hawk sailed across the backyard and into my neighbor’s silver maple!

Why do birds sing more frequently in the spring? There’s still much to learn, but the thinking is that the increase in daylight triggers a bird’s thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH steps up the production of sex hormones to prepare birds for the mating season. A big part of successful reproduction is attracting a mate and maintaining a breeding territory — birdsong plays a major role in both activities.

The four songsters mentioned above were year-round residents in the Twin Cities this past winter.  Soon migrants, such as warblers, red-winged blackbirds, catbirds and others will return to add their harmony to the chorus. In fact, I saw my first red-winged blackbird of the season perched on a cattail in a small pond yesterday. Regardless of its purpose, the return of beautiful birdsong is one of spring’s finest gifts.