Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Brief Word About "Our" State Bird

If you hold to the belief that the sighting of a cardinal is a wondrous, singular event, a rare moment akin to glimpsing the Northern Lights, a brief but amazing encounter with grace that will place the stamp of luck on your day, and you want to keep holding to that belief, do not move to east central Illinois. To put it simply, the cardinal runs rampant here. On any given day, at any given time, the pert, crested red guy with black mask, and his just-as-pert orange-tipped, beige-gray gal, can be seen anywhere you glance -- in country or town, on fence or tree branch, in woods or back yard. About as unusual around here as a tornado warning or a chicken-fried steak.

Matching the cardinal's sheer plenitude in these parts is its incredibly vast repertoire of calls, the rarest of which can only be heard at 4:30 a.m. in the bush outside my bedroom window: Stop Sleeping!-Stop Sleeping!-Stop Sleeping!-Now! Then there are the more famous lunchtime calls: Burrito-Burrito-Burrito-Eat! And, a holdover from the cardinal's days as hailer of confused drivers crossing the state line into Wisconsin: Cheese Here, Dodo! Cheese Here, Dodo! When the cardinal is feeling a bit more "impressionistic," there is the "Cary Grant": Judy-Judy-Judy-Who's She? And, in a more "international" mood, the cardinal is known to utter the obsolete Scandinavian phrase Fjord-Bjorn-and-Sven-IKEA!

Because a thousand cardinals surrounding my house every single day of my existence wasn't enough, a few Christmases ago I bought a mechanical one to have inside the house. My very own cardinal boasted "natural movement" of head, beak, and tail, cleverly triggered by a motion-activated photo sensor, and "authentic song" thanks to actual recordings provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology -- or, three different clacking and jerking motions and two different "tweets" every single time I walked past. Good thing the natural and authentic off button was easy to find.

A quick bit of online research reveals that the cardinal is the state bird of no fewer than six other states: Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. So much for feeling special. At least we can claim Abraham Lincoln. (If you hold to the belief that the sighting of Lincoln paraphernalia is a wondrous, singular event, do not move to east central Illinois.)

Even after having lived here for eleven years now and having seen more than my allotted share of red guys and gray gals, I do still consider the cardinal, both male and female, a thing to behold. And when I suddenly spot a single fat one poised on my privacy fence or a trio of trim youths chasing through the maple, I still feel slightly luckier than I had the moment before. I still perk and look up when I'm walking the dogs and hear any one of the cardinal's clear, liquid calls from high in a pine or oak. And the other day, turning at just the right moment to see a fleeting wisp of red amidst the all-white furniture on my neighbors' patio, an appearance as subtly striking as a brushstroke of red in the waves of a Winslow Homer painting, I still felt I'd witnessed a wondrous event. Then I fluffed my pillow and went back to sleep, on the couch.

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