For more than a quarter of this century I lived outside the USA. In my experience, I found that there are two main types of difficulty when it comes to adjusting to life in a different land. One is the type of difficulty that smacks you right in the face and tells you "You're not in Kansas anymore, kid." Different foods, different climate, different customs, and of course a different language. (You know, it's true what Steve Martin said: Those foreigners have a different word for everything!)

The other type of difficulty is more subtle. Rather than hit you up the side of the head, it just sits there quietly in your heart. It demands no attention, but it is having a big impact on you all the same. It's a longing for the homeland, for the familiar. The things that tug on the heartstrings. You can overcome all those smack-you-in-the-face difficulties, but this deeper longing never goes away, even if you've long stopped noticing it.

I woke up one March morning, back in Chicago after a 5-year stint overseas. Actually, I'd been home almost six months already. Overnight there had been a late winter snow. The storm had moved out and a bright sun was piercing the slats of our bedroom blinds. I could hear the water dripping from the maple tree outside our window, as the heavy snow melted. A Cardinal started singing, and I started crying.

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I had not heard that sound for five years. That singing Cardinal plucked a string in my heart that had sat there taut and waiting for a long time. It said: You are home.

There is much to say about the Northern Cardinal. About the fact that they do not migrate, so they are here with us all year round. Or that the male keeps its bright red cloak through all seasons, unlike most birds, who trade their bright spring wardrobe for drab colors in the winter. The Cardinal's massive beak looks powerful enough to unscrew the lug nuts on your car wheels, and I have seen beaks on some Cardinals that look as if they tried just that--scratched and worn like my favorite old pair of pliers. And did you know that both the male and the female Cardinals sing, and that they mate for life? I wonder if there's a lesson there for us....

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If you want to learn more, go ahead and google it. But as for me, there's only one thing that need be said about the Northern Cardinal. It's the bird that brought me home.

Dan's Feathursday Feature is a weekly contribution to the COS blog featuring the thoughts, insights and pictures of Chicago birder, Dan Lory on birds of the Chicago region.