February 2010 Issue
Making room for nature in our busy lives
At first blush, the cardinal does not seem extraordinary. Ohio’s state bird is:
— familiar (six other states claim it as their state bird),
— wide-ranging (it can be found throughout the eastern half of the United States where its range actually has expanded over the past century)
— a permanent resident (unlike migratory songbirds that can be glimpsed only during warmer months, the cardinal can be found year-round throughout its range).Yet, the cardinal’s bright colors and cheerful song make it a favorite among photographers and artists. As we reach mid-winter, we begin to understand why the cardinal is a great choice for Ohio’s state bird.
By early February, the trees are bare and gray clouds have taken up residence across the state like an unwanted house guest who won’t leave. Most of the flashy birds and even some of the human population have vacated Ohio for warmer climates. Snowfall, like a fresh layer of paint, brightens the landscape now and then, but turns dingy and patchy by the end of the season, leaving even the most diehard cross-country skier stranded indoors.
This time of year marks the point midway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. For the earliest Ohioans, this probably was a time of great expectation and anxiety: Spring was on its way, but would the winter stores hold out? Each day would offer a little more daylight, but might also bring some of winter’s worst weather.
At Sunwatch Village near modern Dayton, the Fort Ancient people created a solar calendar using tall cedar posts that would throw shadows to different parts of the village, depending on the season. In April, the advent of the planting season was marked (archaeologists believe) when one cedar post cast its shadow against the open hearth of the most important home in the village.
We can only imagine the feelings of these people, huddled in the house against the bone-biting chill of early February, watching that shadow inching toward Spring. Today, we observe this time of year with a more light-hearted ritual that involves the shadow of a famous groundhog. But we still feel the anticipation of those earlier Ohioans about the change in seasons.
This is when the cardinal shows its stuff.
The bright scarlet color of the male cardinal is a reminder of the beauty of Ohio during the challenging months of winter. It is a source of joy during a dash into the backyard for firewood or a longer hike near a stream. This small bird – a mere pinpoint of crimson against an enormous backdrop of gray – can trigger powerful emotions and change a winter-weary frame of mind in a heartbeat.
Hope is a precious good when our lives seem hectic or even topsy-turvy. You can replenish your own stockpile from the beauty that nature offers in abundance, even in midwinter. Bundle up and take a walk in a favorite wooded area or put up a birdfeeder in your backyard to help the cardinal and its brethren. When winter decides to extend its stay, you’ll be glad you did.
Josh Knights is Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Ohio program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about The Nature Conservancy’s work at nature.org/ohio.