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Life with the Cardinals

Years ago, when I was feeling down and out, I asked the Lord a silly question. “If you see me in my bluesy state and really care about things like this, would you please send a cardinal to land on the crepe myrtle tree just outside the window where I love to sit and stare?” Nothing happened just then, so I concluded that God didn’t have time for trivial stuff like that. But, just a few days later, when I was still hoping he’d heard and would answer, he did. I didn’t see the scarlet cardinal I was expecting, but I did see its mate, a softly muted version of the vivacious male. She didn’t just perch on a branch and then leave; she was sitting on a tiny nest in the crepe myrtle just as serene as could be. How, I wondered, had I missed her just days before, and why was God answering my prayer in this way? Then, the answer came in a gentle thought that drifted into my mind like a feather falling to the ground.

“You asked me to send a cardinal to make a quick visit to the crepe myrtle, but I’ve chosen a surer sign of my concern. Like this mother cardinal who has made her nest in the branches of this little tree, I have made my dwelling place in you. I don’t make quick stops and leave; I come to stay. Some days my presence is camouflaged, just as this little cardinal was not visible to you a couple of days ago, but that doesn’t mean I’m not there. Seek me with your whole heart, look carefully, desire strongly, and I will manifest myself to you. And remember, I am with you always to the close of the age.”

All that happened over a quarter century ago, but the memory is still vivid to me, as vivid as the cardinals that continue to inhabit my yard. Then, just recently, it seems the Lord decided to continue the chapter he’d begun decades ago. One day I noticed a tiny nest in the rosebushes that have since replaced the crepe myrtle. When I inspected it, I found three pale blue eggs with brown speckles. It wasn’t until I noticed a female cardinal frequenting the area that I realized the nest was hers. From the vantage point of my bedroom window, I had a front row seat for the drama that was about to unfold. “Years ago, I told you that I make my home in you,” the good Lord seemed to be saying. “Now, through the cardinals, I’ll give you a closer glimpse into what home life is all about.”

And so began three of the most enriching weeks of my life, life with the cardinals. Each morning, I could hear the chink-chink of Mama Bird as she incubated her eggs. I watched in silence and admiration as she exemplified patience and contentment. Unlike us humans who suffer boredom and fidgetiness when we’re restrained or detained, she was profoundly serene. I could see it in her warm brown eyes, and absurd as it sounds, she seemed to be smiling sometimes. Every now and then, she’d close her eyes, but only for a few seconds. No sleeping on the job! She may have been peaceful, but she wasn’t in la-la land. Wary of every movement, every breeze, every sound, she frequently stretched her neck to get a closer look at the world beyond the rosebush. The only times she appeared unsettled were the times the crows drew nearer. Their cawing sent up warning flags, and her usually tranquil eyes registered fear. She’d hunker down deeper into the nest, grounding herself, flattening out her rounded form in case she and her precious eggs might be detected in their place of hiding. I always felt sorry for her when she did that. She looked so frail and vulnerable, an easy target for predators. It didn’t take her long, though, to calm down and resume her peaceful vigil. Every half hour or so, she’d rise to her legs, carry out a close inspection of the eggs, turn them over, nudging them ever so gently, and then sit back down in her house of sticks.

Sometimes, she’d sing a tiny song, neither too long nor too loud lest she reveal her secret place, but I suspect only long enough and loud enough to call to her mate who eventually came with a bit of worm, a snack to help maintain her strength as she waited. Days went by in this quiet reverie. I snapped picture after picture of her, and if she knew I was there, she didn’t seem to mind, so long as I didn’t use the flash. That drove her bonkers, so I stopped.

Then, after heat and cold, sun and storm, the blessed event took place. The eggs hatched. I knew something was up when I saw Papa Bird right alongside Mama in the nest, both of them hovering attentively and tenderly over the new life that had sprung from them. As soon as they left the nest for rest and food, I made a beeline outside to take a peek. Two of the three eggs had hatched, and there lay the babies with reddish-pink, featherless skin and on the sides of their heads, big black bulges with the faintest slits that one day would be eyes. Only a mother would have thought them beautiful, or a grandmother, which is what I considered myself to be, their grandmother who loved them in all their wonderful ugliness. I fell asleep that first night, contented in knowing that an enormous amount of TLC was taking place right outside my window.

And then it happened. One of the babies disappeared from the nest. I don’t know how, but maybe it was the strong wind that ushered in a storm a few days after the eggs hatched. I noticed Mama chinking and clicking apprehensively the morning after the rainstorm, and the nest seemed to be tilting precariously. That’s what aroused my suspicions, which, sadly, were confirmed. Checking the nest, I found only one baby and the one unhatched egg. I named the survivor Teensy, who would be on a solo flight from this point forward. Little brother or little sister was gone, but somehow this tiny mite had managed to stay put. Another challenge had come the cardinals’ way, but, in spite of their loss, Mama and Papa carried on. Teensy was all they had left, so their lives centered on her.

During the first days after the hatching, Mama stayed close to Teensy, keeping her warm since at this point her tiny body didn’t have the capacity to regulate heat. The same patience and serenity filled Mama’s eyes as when she was incubating the eggs, but this time there was less “daydreaming” and more frequent adjustments to accommodate the growing, squirming baby beneath her feathers. Unless it was feeding time, I couldn’t see Teensy in these first days, but all it took was the quiver of rose canes that announced Mama’s or Papa’s approach, and she’d pop up like a Jack-in-the-box with mouth wide open and disproportionately larger than the rest of her skinny frame, ready for dinner. This kid was ravenous and she kept both parents on the go, flitting to and fro in search of caterpillars, usually big fat ones, apple green and fresh from the garden.

Not long after these initial days, I noticed a change. Teensy was starting to raise her little head in the nest, high enough that I could see her, and she began spending longer periods of time alone. Mama wasn’t there as much anymore, and Papa was the one in charge of meals. Unlike Mama who signaled her approach with distinctive clicking, Papa just showed up. I learned that if I didn’t want to miss him, I’d better keep a sharp lookout, no woolgathering, because he operated in stealth. After a little research, I discovered what was going on. Mama was already busy making a new nest for the next brood, but when Teensy needed “cuddling” or when it got chilly or rainy, Mama came in and did duty as Teensy’s blanket or Teensy’s umbrella. I watched the valiance of this tiny living shield one day when the rain came pelting down without mercy. Mama was soaking wet, the water running down her back in rivulets, but Teensy was out of harm’s way. The next morning when the sun came up, there was baby girl, sparkly-eyed and feisty, ready for new adventures because Mama had taken the beating the day before when she wasn’t strong enough to endure it herself.

At this point, Teensy started the business of preening what few feathers she had. She’d stretch her tiny quills and comb through the sparse feathers that were sprouting. Sometimes, she’d rise to her full height, shake herself vigorously, and then settle back down as she waited trustfully on Papa and those caterpillars. Ants, spiders, wasps, lizards, and a host of other visitors dropped in, but Teensy wasn’t in the least bit concerned. Occasionally, she’d snap her tiny bill at a fly, but it was just practice. She couldn’t quite reach them yet. And just as Mama had done when she was incubating her eggs, Teensy would hunker down real low in the nest if she heard a crow cawing or sensed danger.

As the days unfolded in rapid succession, I noticed something else that took place when Papa came to the nest. After he had fed Teensy, she always seemed to want more, but he waited patiently until she had swallowed everything he offered and lingered as though there was unfinished business. Which there was! Teensy’s potty time! When it was obvious there would be no second helpings of caterpillar, Teensy obliged Papa by making a 180 degree turn, raising her little backside, and ejecting a tiny ball of white poop which Papa promptly caught in his beak and darted away to dispose of it. Diaper duty! It was something to see! No human father should ever complain again; compared to the birds, our version is completely sanitized!

And speaking of darting away, I noticed Mama and Papa never left the nest, unless unexpectedly startled by me behind the curtains, by flying straight up. From the cover of the rosebush, they hopped down to the ground between the house and the bushes, followed the wall a distance, and then flew outward and upward. Yet another way to keep their stash safe! Anyone who uses the term birdbrain should stop. These creatures are far more intelligent than we give them credit.

Parenting is definitely a shared duty with the cardinals, and bringing new life into the world is a cycle as natural as breathing. No thinking about it or wondering if “we can afford it,” “do we have the energy,” or “would we rather travel!” Mates for life, Mama and Papa Cardinal live for each other and for the next generation of redbirds that grace the world with color and song. And, as generously as they give of themselves, nature’s Creator supplies generously all they need to fulfill their humble roles. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. No time for useless fretting, they get on with the business of living.

One day I saw Papa doing something different. He had a twig in his beak, and he was busily engaged in repair work to the nest. Just as in the human experience of home ownership, maintenance of the cardinals’ nest is part of the picture! But lest we think that life is all work for these tireless creatures, think again. Each evening, right before sunset, Papa would go to a nearby pecan tree, perch on his customary branch, and sing his heart out, one song after another after another. I like to think that Teensy and Mama were being serenaded or better still that they were being led in prayer and praise by the head of the family. Whatever the case, it was a glorious time of day, a time that made me happy to be part of the quiet, ongoing miracles we can so easily miss in our all too often distracted, frenetic way of living.

I admit I got way behind in my housekeeping during my days of watching the cardinals; I was way too captivated by the story they were telling me to miss an interesting chapter while dusting. And so the clothes piled up in the laundry basket, and the dishes stayed in the sink a little longer, but so what? I knew I’d never get my hands on a book like this again! Throughout it all, I kept praying two prayers, “Lord, take care of Teensy and let her grow to adulthood, to become a Mama herself, to give us more redbirds for our children and our grandchildren, and Lord, when she does leave the nest, please don’t let me miss it. I want to see her depart just like I saw her arrive.” I don’t know how God will answer my first prayer, but I do know how he answered the second one. One morning after I returned from early Mass, I made my customary check-in at cardinal station in the rosebush and was startled to see Teensy standing on the edge of the nest and looking very fluffy and much more feathery than just the day before! She seemed to have come to maturity overnight! “It can’t be time already,” I told myself, but I grabbed the camera just in case. Sure enough, Mama and Papa were both close by, chip-chip-chipping encouragingly. I’d read in a book about cardinals that this is a coming-out party, the way the parents help the debutante step onto the stage of the big world and play her part as a brand new fledgling, an up and coming star! It had been only eleven days since Teensy hatched, but it was already time to move on! According to what I’d read, she was right on schedule. “Chip-chip,” Teensy’s parents called repeatedly, which in human language means, “You can do it; you can do it!” And do it she did! Teensy leaned further than she’d ever leaned before, spread her tiny wings, and took off! She went all the way across the driveway and landed in another rosebush, little Cecilia Brunner, about fifteen feet away from her first home. Papa was close by as was Mama, both ready to chase away anything that came near their darling, everything that is but me. Somehow, they tolerated me; I guess they had seen me all along, watching them from the window, and they were used to that camera in their faces by now. At least Teensy was. I got closer to her than I’d ever been, and she posed so accommodatingly as I snapped away. “This is your graduation portrait,” I told her, “so let’s have a big smile. You’ve accomplished your mission, and I’m so happy for you.” It was a grand time for all of us!

After that first hour or so after fledging, Teensy was no longer visible. I don’t know where she went or if she arrived where she was going, but I want to believe she did. I want to believe that God heard that first of my prayers, for Teensy to live a long and productive life, and is answering them as wonderfully and as mercifully as he answered my pleas to let me witness Teensy leaving the nest. Maybe one day, I’ll see her and recognize her. And maybe she’ll recognize me, too, and stop and smile once more for her portrait.

That’s the end of the story, or maybe it’s just the beginning of chapters yet to be lived and shared and told, chapters in which all of us, like Teensy, find contentment in being who we are—from our humble beginnings in a house of twigs in the rosebush—to wherever our wings take us and for whatever purpose God fashioned us. It’s the tale of home life the good Lord told me he wanted to tell, a tale of danger yet peacefulness in the midst of danger, a tale of Providence and perseverance, a tale of dutifulness coupled with happiness and serenity in the fulfillment of that duty, a tale of hard work that results in rewards, a tale of steady growth and development, a tale of self-sacrifice for the good of another, a tale of unity and togetherness, of cooperation and singleness of purpose, but most of all, a tale of love and joy. And if that isn’t cause enough for Papa to sing from his branch in the pecan tree, I don’t know what is. Sharing this story with you is my way of singing along with Papa, my way of thanking the good God for sending the cardinals to me once again, to speak to me about home life and through them, to assure me, as he did twenty-five years ago, that his abode is with me and that he’ll never depart, even when I get bluesy and think he’s nowhere around. After all, could a Papa ever forget his Teensy? Never! Never!

Life with the Cardinals

Bonnie T.  Barry

Sunset, United States

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Artist's Description

This is my three-weeks journal of “Life with the Cardinals” . . . This is not for anybody in a rush; it’s a bit long and may take a little while to read, but I hope you enjoy it. Wish I could upload the illustrated version that has a picture with each paragraph! Sure would appreciate some feedback; it’s always good to get another’s point of view.

Artwork Comments

  • babybird1937
  • Barry Norton
  • Maria Dryfhout
  • JulieMahony
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  • Kimberly Palmer
  • photofriendly777
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