A spark bird is the bird that triggers an interest in birding or bird watching. For me it was the northern cardinal.
If you’ve lived in the Midwest, especially Chicago, you are probably familiar with dreary grey winter days, when you lose all sense of day and night. Thick grey clouds don’t allow the sun to peek through, and at night, you often hear the wind howling. You spend most of your free time indoors, just waiting for the Holidays to bring some joy and excitement into the depths of a painfully cold winter.
After living in Chicago downtown for seven years, we had moved to the suburbs, and the frigid long winter was all in. Looking out my kitchen window, all I saw was a deserted grey, white and black landscape. No movement, no color, no sign of life. And then one day I noticed a dash of bright red in our snow-covered backyard tree. Upon closer inspection, I realized it was a little bird of the brightest, most vibrant red color. It was chirping energetically and was all puffed-up to ward off the cold. I instantly felt connected to this bird, seeing it warmed my heart and brought a big smile to my face.
Seeing him often reminded me of Shelley’s verse “O Wind, if Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”
This I realized was a male northern cardinal but I wanted to learn more about my feathered neighbor, so I began to research. Native to Illinois it is also its designated state bird. First described in the 18th century, the cardinal draws its name from the scarlet robes of Roman Catholic Cardinals. It is one of those resilient birds that do not migrate when temperatures drop to freezing levels. It chooses to brave the cold. It is aggressively territorial, often living within a mile of where it was born. It’s also known to breed with only one mate and can live up to 15 years.
All that winter I looked out to see this beautiful bird, finding him perched on snow covered branches, singing his distinct bird song. Every time I saw him, I had a sense of well-being and hope. I felt calm and peaceful in my soul. Seeing him often reminded me of Shelley’s verse “O Wind, if Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”
Since then I have become an enthusiastic birder. I look forward to seeing all varieties of birds migrating in spring and fall. I enjoy photographing them too. But the connection I feel with the cardinal is something special. When we moved again, recently, I was overjoyed to find a cardinal couple nesting in our new backyard. I love watching them sing to each other and fly around playfully. The male likes to hang out on my patio set. Sometimes I even talk to him.
I am not alone in my fascination with the male cardinal. Over the centuries, because of its distinctive characteristics, the cardinal has been associated with a lot of symbolism in different cultures around the world. It is thought to be symbolic of pivotal change, a messenger of spirits, a harbinger of love, an omen of good news and positivity.
During the lockdown in March this year and all through this pandemic I have spent hours and hours birding in my backyard away from the noises of the world. But when I see my friend the northern cardinal going about his life without a care in the world, I am always reassured that life will bring good things, that these tough worrisome times shall pass, and that, in the end, we will all be alright.
Photograph by Zidaan Aamer
All audio, text and images are under copyright © Neelum Films LLC