Wednesday, August 27, 2008

And Your Bird Can Sing

Despite being socially monogamous, northern cardinals frequently engage in extra-pair copulations. In one study, 9 to 35% of nestlings were the result of extra-pair copulations. (

1st Movement -- Affettuoso Saccharum -- "Sun, sun, sun, here it comes..."

To Mars and me, slightly less than mostly asleep after a solid eight-hour slumber on a cool spring morning, it is music - sweet lyrical notes honed by centuries of evolutionary refinements and anthropomorphized by audiences eager to connect with the natural world within which we find ourselves. Inches apart we both open our eyes and look at each other for the first time in this day's light.

To the male cardinal, attached steadfastly to the pink blossomed flowering crab tree adjacent to our house, it is simply his way of reconnecting with his main squeeze after each of their nightly liaisons with other members of their polyamorous social group.

"purdy purdy purdy"

The tune is hardly unique to him - I mean he didn't "compose" it, or construct it from samplings of other artists' work, or even improvise one little bit from the basic text. But although different male Emberizidae Cardinalinae have and will sing this identical melody in this identical style for all of cardinal eternity -- it is nonetheless definitely his song.

"purdy purdy purdy"

Because of the time of day, spot of origin, and lyrics, we recognize that it is "our" cardinal doing the singing. For some reason this feeling of imaginary ownership gives us comfort as our hands touch in the middle of the bed.

More importantly however, either based upon slight nuances that only a devoted fan can detect or the fact that they perform this same song and dance every day at the same time and place, she recognizes that, within the slightly tenuous cardinal definition of monogamy, this is her cardinal. Her answer-song, performed offstage left but still heard clearly, penetrates our bedroom space. And all too soon, after a few more back and forth solos escalating in speed so as to almost become a duet, they reunite (for the daylight hours anyway) and the singing, having reached its coda, comes to a stop.

2nd Movement -- Fortissimo Dissonare -- "The sun ain't gonna shine anymore"

We got to sleep late with minor headaches for which, since we were both tired, we failed to take medication. The windows are open due to the same lack of late-night energy and, as a result, the room is cooler than our bed coverings can overcome. A light drizzle is falling and the wind blows ferociously throughout the night until just before dawn. There is absolutely no hope for sunshine ever again within our lifetimes.


I roll over to my other side and pull the quilt up over my ears hoping to drown out the cacophony of cardinal cries. It doesn't work. The dissonant diatribe bypasses my aural system and penetrates my mind somewhere in the mid-forehead area -- penetrating deeper and deeper like an awl being driven in by each damn whiney, high-pitched note.

"What the hell is wrong with these birds? Can't he keep it in his feathers? Why can't they spend a quiet night at home like the rest of us? Like we should have last night!"

If it weren't even colder outside the quilt than under it I would get my gun, if I had one, and create a permanent memorial of blood-soaked red feathers on the branch from which he launches his disruptive ditty.

Instead we both lie there inharmoniously, waiting desperately for the conclusion of the songfest and hoping that they will leave us alone, in silence, for the rest of the day.

Finis -- Expectato Desperado -- "The sun will come out, tomorrow"

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