The deep freeze is on again, and I glance at the thermometer as I step out on the porch at 6am. Eighteen below, Fahrenheit. I rub my already-cold nose as I toss a few handfuls of sunflower seeds out on the shoveled path. The cardinals are always the first to come looking for food at dawn. I'll tend to the rest of the feeders in about half an hour when I go out to do the rest of the morning chores. The cardinals will be happy that they don't have to wait until then. When it's light enough to see, I peek out the window a see a dozen red cardinals, busy on the ground in front of the porch, eating as many sunflower seeds as they can before the Blue jays come. The jays will snap up all the seed in a matter of minutes, and fly off with them.
The bright red, male cardinals bring a special color effect to the white surroundings, that only they can add. Twelve males are joined by ten female cardinals, who are extraordinarily beautiful in their own right. A pair of cardinals spends the whole year together, and they mate for life. Before the end of winter they will start singing to each other, a reminder that spring is near and the songs of love are in the air.
As the nesting season nears, the male cardinal will bring special treats to offer his lovely mate. Their beaks touch as he passes her a fat cricket. A kiss!
In early May she will begin to build her nest of twigs, and will do all the work herself as the male proudly sings from his favorite high perch. The nest will be hidden in the thick branches of a group of Prickly ash, obscured by the ash's many green leaves.
When the four pale blue spotted eggs are laid, she will faithfully do all the incubating, as the male continues to bring her insects and other tasty tidbits. When the young have finally grown and fledged, the proud male will feed them until they learn to find their own food. This is a busy time for the male cardinal. He has to feed his mate, who has laid another clutch of eggs, plus all the new children, besides himself. The bond between the pair of cardinals is strong and they are rarely out of sight of each other throughout their lives.
Cardinals were historically a summer resident here in the North, and they would migrate south to a warmer climate for the winter. Starting four or five decades ago, cardinals have slowly been moving their winter homes further and further north. They may have been some of the first indicators of global warming in the world of birds. For whatever reason, there are more cardinals, and I'm not complaining. They add so much to my life in the country. Many of the cardinals who spend the winter here with me will stay for the summer. The more cardinal songs I hear in the spring, the better.
The harsh reminder of what January can be like is here in the form of bitter subzero temperatures. It's been near 20 degrees below zero at night, and five to ten degrees below zero during the day. The sunshine helps warm the old house, but I still feed twice as much firewood into the stove when it's this cold. Keeping warm is no longer taken for granted, and carrying wood to the house is done routinely. Keeping the house warm when it's very cold also means toting more water from the spring to fill the two water containers on the woodstove. It's important to keep moisture in the house.
It's time to forget about how cold it is, and start watching for the very first signs of spring.
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