By this time in late winter, I long for signs of lengthening days and gentle warm breezes. Snowy cold snaps alternating with warm thaws, the weather in the GTA has been a tease this season. Hoping for an early spring, I looked to the shadowy results of Groundhog Day, among our more lighthearted commercial calendric customs. The two celebrity rodent prognosticators on both sides of the border, Wiarton Willie in Bruce County, Ontario, and Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania, have forecast an early spring. Given that cold, slate-grey skies and frozen white ground continue to dominate our winter landscape, however, I remain unconvinced.
One cheery and as yet un-commercialized signal of the promise of longer, warmer days is the striking sight of our resident northern cardinals. Often seen flittering in and out of protected backyard hedgerows and under dense parkland tangles, the imposing 22cm male birds brighten up our urban winter drabness with their crested crimson coats. But it’s the repeated brief whistling late winter call that has caught my attention today. Often transcribed as a high-pitched “whoit ... whoit,” the brief ascending glissando has about an octave range, twice sung per call. Later in the season cardinals add other melodic motifs (slow trills, chuffs, chirps and churrs) to their repertoire of 16 or more sounds. Both the cardinal male and the mixed olive-persimmon feathered female begin to call around Valentine’s Day, a clear signal of the approach of the vernal equinox, this year falling on March 20.