Cardinal and green leaves

Northern Cardinals are known for their plumage. Bold red or subtle pink and brown, on a background of snow or new leaves, their beauty is for the eye. Their song which is penetrating and distinctive and sort of resembles a less-obnoxious car alarm, is not as often remarked upon.

Right now, though, I’m excited about cardinal song. Because they’ve started singing right on cue and the days grow longer. And we all know what that means.

Cardinals are among the songbirds, sometimes called the oscines, a subgroup of the perching birds or passerines. I will not venture to delve into the full taxonomy here, but the useful thing to know is that this group is characterized by their vocal control and ability to use complex sounds to further their territorial and reproductive ambitions. Some songbirds such as the mockingbirds and thrushes are, in fact, known for the beauty of their songs. Others, such as the corvids, not so much. Somewhere in between lies the Northern Cardinal, along with the chickadees and tits, the gnatcatchers, the kinglets… a lot of birds really.

But Oscine, the word, was not originally spoken to designate the beauty of a bird’s song but the use. In Latin it was first applied to birds who gave omens through their vocalizations, as opposed to birds like eagles and vultures who gave omens through the direction of their flight. And this, in a sense, some of the most unmelodious oscines do. Crows and chickadees alike will tell you where an owl is (chickadees will tell you what kind, even!) And cardinals, at this moment, will predict spring.

Featured photo courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Written by Carrie
Carrie Laben, after years of writing and birding in New York, moved to Montana to pursue her two great passions more effectively. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana in Missoula. When she is not cranking out essays and speculative fiction stories, or wandering around on mountains failing to see the birds she is looking for, she is likely to be drinking one of the many fine local microbrews or attending a potluck with something from the local farmer’s market in hand. On Mondays from 3 to 3:30 Mountain Time you can find her answering questions about birds on live chat at