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The Cardinals of Our Lives

When a cardinal hen showed up at our dining room windows ferrying twigs and straw and even a hunk of plastic sheeting in her beak, my adult daughter and I expected to witness, up close and hour-by-hour, a wondrous cycle-of-life drama.  We were not ordinarily birdwatchers, so we weren’t certain how to read either the common or bizarre turns our tale took.  Neither, as it turned out, were the experts.

Our first surprise was how quickly the nest became habitable.  While her mate supervised from his perch on a volunteer sapling, the hen did all the work, shaping a tight, round vessel from straight materials, maneuvering in a narrow space between the windowpane and the chicken wire supporting the trumpet vine that climbs the side of our house.  She had made an ingenious choice, a spot well hidden from and nearly inaccessible to predators.  Getting to the nest took strategy:  first, a steady perch on a slip of vine protruding away from the chicken wire, then a bold leap through a gap between two sheets of wire onto a sloping vine.  Three more hops down the vine, one pivot, and she could flutter onto the nest, which balanced securely in the V of an old, gnarled stalk of the trumpet vine.  Cardinal hubby was not so clever.  He would perch on the chicken wire itself, both sets of claws tensed, and crane his neck this way and that, as if he were thinking, “How in the devil does she get back there?”

I don’t mean to anthropomorphize.  All along I resisted that impulse, and any other temptations toward sentimentality, even as my daughter named my compulsive checks on the nest “The Cardinals of Our Lives” and “As the Egg Turns.” She should talk!  How many times did I catch her standing on a chair, vainly hidden behind the window frame, nose to beak with a defensive, fluffed-up cardinal?  I have only to count the photos on her digital camera.  My own effort to document the events is preserved in emails to bird-watching friends and, as the natural course turned aberrant, to ornithologists and the Audubon Society.

The nest was complete the middle week of April, right on schedule for a first clutch of eggs in Minnesota’s short spring.  A second clutch, I learned in my computer searches, could come shortly after the fledging of this clutch or as late as September.  My neighborhood is well overseen by cardinals, even through the winter.  When I walk my dog in the morning, I can often locate the three points on a triangle of sentinels calling to each other, and I imagine the calls relayed to still other posts beyond my range of hearing.  How pleased I was to know that my sparse trumpet vine, too deeply shaded by the neighbor’s house to bloom much, could at least help maintain a favorite bird population.  No silent spring in Linden Hills!

First one egg appeared and, in short order, one more, although we never caught the hen in the act of laying.  In the meantime, I had developed an anxious attachment to all this avian activity.  When I didn’t see my cardinal pair near the nest, I fretted that a prowling neighborhood cat had snatched them out of the bushes. I wanted to scold my hen for leaving her eggs exposed to the still cool air and to the few predators who might outsmart her:  the crows that squawk and swarm over the leftovers my neighbor scatters in her front yard, or the squirrels that scramble up the vine to spring onto the porch roof.  How would I dare entrust these birds to their own lives, to backyard ecology, without accounting for their whereabouts minute-by-minute?  The sight of them is a sheer gift, I told myself. There is nothing I can or must do.

By my late mother’s birthday, April 21, a third egg had appeared and the hen was definitely brooding.  I had read that the male cardinal feeds the female while she is on the nest, but we saw little of that. Maybe that damned chicken wire still foiled him.  Instead he took her out to eat. The cardinal hen—a rare female songbird that actually sings—would utter a string of hungry chirps.  Shortly her mate would land on the wire, and she would lift herself off the nest and swoop the width of two windows out the side of the tent that the chicken wire made.  Away they’d fly together, leaving the eggs unprotected as they whizzed across the yard and around the house.  No matter how nervous I got at the sight of that unguarded nest, she always returned, with the same series of hops and the dainty pivot. Hubby, however, could disappear for hours.  We relied on his calls from the backyard maple or the oak across the street to say that he still cared.

Our hen was not the dull grey brown a female bird appears to be from a distance, but an intricate tweed of tan and red and even a burnished green, a remarkable beauty. Our watchfulness made us familiar with her particular form:  the pouf of her breast; the way she rested her head on the side of the nest, her crest feathers ruffling in the wind; the angle of her tail, like a spoon handle leaning against the side of a dish. That tail jutting above the window sash became our quickest assurance that all was well.

I surfed the web for data on the cardinal’s gestation period and calculated that the first egg might even hatch on my birthday, April 30.  I began to entertain the conceit that this bird, having nested fully in my sight, might bear some cosmic connection with me, and that the life proceeding outside the windowpane might carry meaning for the human life underway inside. It was a dangerous wish.

Over the weekend, I noticed an unusual proliferation of birds in my backyard. I had never seen such flitting and swooping, but then I had never paid as close attention.  On Saturday afternoon, I counted three pairs of cardinals in sight at once, gathered, no doubt, to check out the rumors of prime real estate.  I pulled my shepherd’s crook free of the bushes where it had fallen a season or two before, set it up in the backyard at a safe distance from the nest and from squirrel launches, and put out the first serving of the gourmet cardinal food I’d bought at the pet food store.  Soon it was swarming with sparrows.  A cardinal or two might stop in occasionally to peck up the seeds spilled on the ground, but they certainly weren’t dependent on my largesse.  The hen always returned from her foraging plump and healthy.

On Monday, April 27, while the hen was off feeding, I stood on a chair for a peek down into the nest, a practice becoming obsessive for both my daughter and me, although she could use photography as her excuse.  A fourth egg had been laid, its creamy background color a shade lighter than the rest.  And soon we saw the source of the egg, a second female somewhat larger than the first, with a ruddier breast and stiffer crest feathers. None of my bird-watching friends had heard of cardinals sharing nests, and my websurfing yielded no mentions of it.  Yet we watched the two hens take long turns at brooding and feeding—for a day.

No egg hatched on my birthday.  Instead, there were six in the nest and a battle for brooding rights was underway.  The ornithologists and Audubon Society members I contacted claimed bewilderment at the behavior I saw from my dining room.  We identified the players as Mama 1 and Mama 2.  We could tell them apart not only by the subtle distinctions in their appearance—my daughter denoted Mama 2 “more green”—but also by the way they skirted the chicken wire and entered the nest.  Mama 2 simply plopped onto the nest, with none of the ritual and delicacy of Mama 1’s moves, and her tail jutted over the edge horizontally.  And Mama 2 seemed more skittish, more likely to fluff up and fly away when she caught our faces at the window.

Here’s how the competition went:  Mama 1, say, would be sitting on the nest and Mama 2 would fly up and perch on the vine outside the chicken wire.  A minute of staring might pass before she inched closer to the widening gap in the wire that was their entrance to the nest.  Mama 1 would flounce up and they would both take flight, one in pursuit of the other.  If they returned to the window at the same time, they flew at each other and took off again.  They whizzed around the yard and circled the house, often more than once.  Eventually, one of them would return and sit on the nest until the other showed up to renew the contest. We’d see the sitting hen make her little side-to-side jostling motion and wonder if she was maneuvering her own eggs into the favored position. One hen’s brooding rights seldom went unchallenged for more than five minutes.  I couldn’t eat or read the newspaper in calm, or trust that the eggs were being incubated, without the constant disturbance of menacing landings and swooping bird bodies, day in and day out. We couldn’t see what happened after dark.

A bird-watching friend’s ornithologist daughter emailed to say that the seabirds she studies sometimes turn polygynous when the male population is stressed, and although she had never heard of it, this might be true of songbirds, as well.  We suffered no shortage of male cardinals, however.  Each of our hens had a mate who stopped by, although they observed rather than participate in the fray.  Once, when a squirrel began climbing up the chickenwire, and just as I shrieked, three vibrant red divebombers appeared out of nowhere to chase it away.

My four-year-old neighbor, Roxy, who had been watching the nest from her dining room window, told me that one mom sat on the nest while the other looked out for predators, and then they would both fly away to eat.  This was a cheerful spin on a story that was turning more tragic for Roxy’s mother and me.  We both felt for Mama 1, the nest builder, who had already devoted a week to her own clutch of eggs, now left unshielded more than half the time as the dispute accelerated. “She must be just desperate,” Karen said, and I felt my resolution not to anthropomorphize waver.

The frenzy continued for the rest of a week, and then the pattern shifted.  I may or may not have seen that pivot point.  Mama 1 was on the nest when I sat down for breakfast, and she remained there, undisturbed, while I ate.  Then came a “witt-witt-witt” from the backyard and she perked up and flew off in its direction.  When I looked up again, Mama 2 was on the nest.  And she stayed on the nest, and stayed and stayed.  Mama 1 had given up or been driven away.  At worst, I imagined an intraspecies murder.  At best, I assumed that birds keep their own count of the days of gestation and know when hope has run out.  My friend’s daughter confirmed that:  It’s not uncommon for a whole clutch to prove infertile.  The hen will simply abandon the eggs when they fail to hatch.  Heartbroken? I wondered, in spite of myself. And did she blame her loss of the nest on her mate’s aloofness, which might have made her appear more vulnerable? I tried to picture Mama 1 building a new nest, ready to get on with her second clutch of the season, but I missed her presence at my window.

Nevertheless, I had soon invested my tender emotions in Mama 2, that spiky, big-breasted intruder.  Without Mama 1 as her constant contrast, Mama 2’s appearance softened, and her nearly unbroken presence on the nest brought calm. She had pushed Mama 1’s useless eggs out of the way so forcefully that the nest’s cup-like bottom verged on cone-shaped, and she rallied all her body’s warmth to the brooding of her own. Her mate proved more attentive than Mama 1’s had been. He did come to feed her, and he kept a vigil on the vine when she needed exercise or respite. Sometimes he sang, and we learned that the cardinal’s song emanates from his throat, with little movement of the beak. We caught him looking more often in the window than out to the yard for predators.  When my daughter approached to take his picture, he expanded like a pufferfish, revealing the dark down underneath his gorgeous red feathers.  The black triangle around his beak became both Lone Ranger mask and sharp goatee.  A tough guy!  And then we got it:  We, the looming monsters behind the glass, were his family’s greatest threats.  And all this time, we had been willing those six eggs into life.

As another week passed, my hope for the remaining eggs waned.  The neglect they suffered during the skirmish didn’t bode well for their development, either.  But one day, more out of habit than expectation, I climbed onto the chair, looked down into the nest, and recoiled.  A spindly, fragile creature was looking back at me, with eyes like black bowling balls at the end of its freakishly long neck.  The hatchling, who would be an only child, was all grey skin and labored breathing. Seeing its spinal column exposed, I felt my anxiety ratchet up a few notches. My daughter concocted a third name for my obsessive spying:  “The Young and the Featherless.”

My birthday had long since passed.  The day the bird hatched was May 12, my daughter’s arrival day.  Twenty-six years before, she had flown in on Northwest Airlines from South Korea, a four-month-old baby delivered to my care.  These wild creatures whose lives had been joined to ours bore oracular messages for her, not for me.  She had moved back home two years before.  Tired of low-wage retail and food service work, she had given up her apartment to return to school for a certifiable skill in the health care field. Graduation day approached.  She could use some propitious signs.  But as I wondered how we might interpret them, it occurred to me that my counterpart in the action was Mama 2.  Nearly any set of events, I’ve learned over the years, can carry a subtext about adoption. Enough baby birds, I believe, have been turned to anthropomorphic use in children’s books, to persuade adopted children that they are special and beloved and ought to feel no pain.  Maybe our cardinal saga offered some deeper, more complicated, and more useful truth.  Even so, the story was probably not mine to tell, and besides, I had resolved to let birds be birds.

Now there were new dangers to watch for.  Baby birds must emit a scent that wafts for blocks around.  The day after the hatching, the neighborhood crows went on the alert.  Four hovered over the bird feeder, one bold enough to perch right on the shepherd’s crook.  I ran outside waving a broom and swearing, but dislodged them only as far as the neighbor’s walnut tree, where they flapped and cawed raucously.  I had never done such a thing, nor had I longed for a BB gun the way I did now.

Cardinal dad continued to protect his offspring from our curiosity.  When we loomed too close while the hen was away, he perched right on the edge of the nest, beak down, staring straight at the little creature, which had fattened up and downed out until it filled the space its two—or five—siblings would have required.  Both birds fed the hatchling assiduously, stuffing their beaks down its gaping face.  When they flew off for refills, it stretched its open beak above the rim of the nest in a voracious panic.

One afternoon, noticing the nest unguarded, I peeked in and found it empty.  I ran outside and tore around the corner of the house .  Among the dried leaves behind the chicken wire sat a little half-feathered ball, barely discernible except for its attempts to hop.  I hurried inside and emailed my clutch of bird-watching friends. Susan, whose mother, a veteran birder, was visiting from Nebraska, phoned right back.  Pick it up and put it back in the nest, she urged me.  It’s not true that mother birds abandon their babies if they smell the touch of humans.  Both parents flitted from vine to sapling to porch roof assessing the problem.  I brought a stool up from the basement to help me reach the nest, which was at eye level inside but well above my head from the ground below.  My daughter, who is squeamish only about spiders, was due home from class soon.  I called and caught her on the bus.  There would be no danger in waiting for her, I figured.  Good thing, because Susan called me back and read aloud from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website:  “If you find a baby bird with some feathers on the ground, it is probably a fledgling.”  “LEAVE IT ALONE,” she said, was all in caps.  I went back to my computer to read about fledging.  The average age was 9.5.  Our chick was on day 10.

By the next morning, the cardinals had ushered their fledgling out from behind the chicken wire and across three feet of lawn to the sumac bushes I had been meaning to cut back before they encroached any further.  As I watched the pair scoot in and out under the sumac, I decided to excuse all the unruly vegetation in my yard as valuable bird habitat. Now we would check their progress from the back porch, but every time we opened that squeaky door or made footfalls on the cedar floor, the watchful male flew up out of the bushes to dissuade us.

Near sunset the following day a ruckus outside drew me to the window at the front corner of the house.  The cardinal hen sat on the neighbor’s front porch roof, scolding in high-pitched chirps much louder and more desperate than any hungry calls from the nest.  Something rustled in the hydrangea below.  I stepped out for a closer look, and a white cat darted out, dashed all the way around my house, and took off down the street. I hadn’t seen a cat in the yard all spring. The hen kept up her scolding as I did a brief, apprehensive survey of the ground below the hydrangea.  Nothing.  She continued the scolding—or was it wailing now?—from my back porch roof, while her mate kept his vigil in the sumacs.  Later, I saw them scooting in and out again, tending, I hoped, to a fledgling spared from danger.

They were gone the next morning, and I hesitated to draw the likely conclusion.  If the six eggs had led to naught, what would become of our cardinal population?  And what was the point of all the attention my daughter and I had given to the process?  While she had classes to finish and a part-time job, I had been deeply enough engaged to neglect parts of my own life, and I was sure to have regrets.  Later I noticed a pair of cardinals fluttering in the wild foliage in the back corner of the yard.  I hoped they were the window birds, but it was hard to imagine the fledgling hopping all that way through sprouting violets, last summer’s dried coneflowers, and a tangle of woodbine.  Still, I brooded on the possibility.

Over the next week, coming and going from the house, walking through the neighborhood, I kept an eye out for the charcoal-feathered fledglings pictured on Yahoo Images.  They clustered in juvenile gangs, I had read, so any flock of small birds up ahead rushed me along the sidewalk.  I never saw them.  Meanwhile, my yard had become eerily quiet and free of birds.

My daughter’s graduation was a joy, and my older daughter came to visit from Korea, where she was living.  My own nest was pleasantly busy, while the other still haunted, its five eggs intact and lifeless and ignored.  One day, only shreds of it hung from the vine.  I had forgotten to watch it and missed seeing what sort of creature found its bounty.

On a sunny day in July, as I sat on the porch reading the morning paper, I heard a crow caw overhead and looked up to see a male cardinal winging back and forth below it, from branch to branch across the yard.  I thought I recognized the protective intent of all that movement.  Two young cardinals, male and female, still relatively small but with most of their adult coloring, had come to the bird feeder.

I had made a genuine effort not to anthropomorphize our birds, and it had mostly succeeded.  It had been harder not to read meaning into their presence.  I wanted their astonishing nearness to offer some insight into our human lives, to reveal some promise free of uncertainty or despair.  But in the end, it was only a story about birds.  What a precious and tenuous thing is an egg or a chick—even one of such tenacious stock as the adult cardinals had shown themselves to be.  How graced we are to hear a single witt-witt-witt or what-cheer-cheer-cheer or birdy-birdy-birdy, let alone the three-point call and response I am ever attuned to now.


© Cheri Register, 2011

Photo credit: Maria Register