Living in Texas has its challenges. There’s the oppressive heat and humidity. There’s the tendency to have ice storms instead of snow. There’s the threat of hurricanes, tornadoes and hail the size of softballs. There’s seemingly unending construction on every road that goes somewhere. There’s horrific air quality from our energy production. There’s an overabundance of religion in government. There’s a gobsmacking quest for ignorance in our schools. There’s a radical conservatism that permeates culture to the point of nausea. And the list goes on.
But one of the things that make it all bearable is nature. Eleven distinct ecological regions. Ten climatic regions. More recorded bird, wild cat and reptile species than anywhere north of the Mexico border. More mammals than any state other than California. The third largest rate of endemism. An estimated 30,000 insect species. Nearly 6,000 plant species. Host to the vast majority of the eastern monarch butterfly migration. Part of two of North America’s four bird migratory flyways. Weather so diverse that it boggles the mind. Mountains, plateaus, dense forests, plains and prairies, deserts, swamps, rivers and creeks and bayous oh my!, and an assortment of views to satisfy desires both gross and subtle.
And because most of the state is humid subtropical, Texas is the go-to place for many migratory birds. But it’s also the year-round home for birds that otherwise migrate from points further north. One such bird species is the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis).
The only other cardinal species north of Mexico, pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus), occurs in far south and west Texas, but it’s so dissimilar that it can’t be confused with northern cardinals. That makes this a very distinctive bird (and anyone who tries to identify an empid flycatcher by sight quickly learns to appreciate visually distinctive bird species).
My experience with northern cardinals indicates they bond for life. Maybe that’s not true in toto, but it sure seems that way to me. For years a pair nested in an evergreen tree near my garage. They always graced me with singing and, when breeding season rolled around, I enjoyed watching the male (first photo) collect food and feed it to the female.
But she died in 2008. He spent quite some time lamenting, calling out a lonesome dirge from treetops and bushes. He’s immediately recognizable because he never lost that dark spot on the top of his bill, so I paid attention to him. I’m not anthropomorphizing his actions; during his mourning period, his song and behavior changed. For several weeks at least. It was an enlightening experience to witness.
By last year I saw him flitting about with a new gal in tow (second female photo). They regularly perched in the shrubs around my patio, so I watched him bring her food and I watched them engage in typical mating behavior. His song changed back to the celebratory tune I’d come to expect from him, and together they could woo a smile from even the most stoic of faces. And now they’re nesting in the same tree he’s called home for ten years or more. Around these parts, his is the cardinal rule that counts.