A Splash of Color and a Promise: Tale of the Cardinals
“If I…forget all I have learned, it is not so much myself that I feel I will be letting down. It is them. The flies and the bee, the river and red bird…all of them who have worked so hard to open my heart and expand my sight. I never lived inside my own wilderness before, and they are the only companions to the world that I have. They are my sole witnesses. How will I explain to my human world that these creatures have unerringly and purposefully been my teachers?”
-Paula D’Arcy, Gift of the Red Bird
Perhaps some of you who have been following this blog remember Sophie, the little cat who for so many years reminded me that love had never forgotten me, that God could always find me even when I was most lost. When Sophie left me in January and returned to her true angel form, I promised her I would never forget.
It has been hard to keep that promise. No one ever said that life would make it easy. There were no lies about that.
This summer a little cardinal family started nesting outside my window. There have been several clutches. Caught by the joy of their bright beautiful colors and exuberant chirpy personalities, I found myself taking so many photographs I was often limited only by what the birds would tolerate and my fear that my apartment neighbors would think I was trying to take pictures of humans.
I am grateful for them – and for the brightness they have brought to a dreary and difficult year. It is not logistically possible given the layout of my apartment complex to have bird feeders. The row of bushes and trees outside my windows is often frequented by birds who enjoy vegetation and insects, but to my knowledge there has never been a nest so close by.
I know their personalities. Dad is loud and vigilant in announcing to the cardinal world that this is a no-trespassing zone. He has a clear and authoritative voice. Dad is the one most easily seen of course. Mom is quieter and has a higher-pitched chirp. She can be quite loud though when it comes to calling Dad because food needs to be brought to the kids or if she’s hungry herself and foraging among the leaves for a meal. Neither Dad nor Mom is ever very far away so if there is a kid or two hopping or flying around, it isn’t that hard to find an adult. The kids have little squeaky voices and converse almost constantly with their parents and each other.
“Junior,” the male I often saw from a previous clutch was relatively brave for a cardinal. Cardinals are easily spooked but some seem to be less so than others. Junior could frequently be seen following Dad or Mom around – mostly Dad – as they foraged. Many times he didn’t seem to mind staying put while I took pictures of him. (Although of course if he had really known that I was doing so, he would have been gone!) He often made me laugh and I could not even tell you exactly why. Actually, I found them all amusing. One morning they seemed even louder than usual and I opened my door to find the entire family practically on my doorstep. They left in a hurry the second I opened the door but I still found it funny that they were all there in the first place.
Unfortunately, my Nikon had to be sent off soon after Junior started developing the beautiful red colors that signified that he was growing into an adult male as handsome as his father. Junior didn’t have the squeakiness to his voice anymore but I usually could tell if he was the one squawking because his vocals were significantly more hyper than either of his parents. I was sad that I would miss the last part of his “growing up” as it is naturally much easier for me to find them with a 60X zoom. I do have binoculars but I am aggravatingly slow in zeroing in on birds and focusing before they take off.
A few days after I sent my good camera to the shop, I was working at home and had the door to the screened in porch open. Suddenly, I heard squeaky little cardinal vocals. I grabbed my ineffective and ancient point-and-shoot. Sure enough, when I looked out the window, there was a little brown youngster hopping around on the sidewalk. Clearly, Mom and Dad had been busy.
The Nikon arrived repaired about a week later. Junior graciously let me see him again and his red feathers were coming in nicely. On the same day, a little buffy ball of feathers peered out at me from the bushes. A beautiful girl, like her Mom.
Post-publication note: I have edited this post because I have had a Junior sighting! He was perching in the big pine tree the morning of 9/27. He is very handsome and has almost all his red feathers in, but not quite.
I found the “Juniorette” I had photographed earlier in the morning sun to be very shy. I heard the family chirping a lot in the bushes and occasionally saw Mom or Dad but never a juvenile. Then several days later, I went to investigate a loud conversation of squeaks and chirps on the other side of the bushes and found that there were actually TWO “Juniorettes.” One was older than the one that I had seen previously. She was definitely NOT mom or the one I had seen the last time I had seen Junior. I do not know precisely where Juniorette 1 fit into the timeline of Junior and Juniorette 2 but of course it is safe to assume that I am not seeing everybody at any given time.
The two Juniorettes both seem shyer than their brother and a little bit more difficult to photograph. Still, they have allowed me to fire off a few shots of them from time to time. The Nikon P610 is a great camera for a novice like me and enables me to photograph birds without approaching them closely. However, it is somewhat of a slow focuser at times. I have a few nice pictures of the Juniorettes and great many of little buffy-colored escaping blurs.
The Juniorettes will all too soon grow into their adult feathers as well and depart for elsewhere. And the nest will fall silent as it is unlikely that there will be another clutch. I am not a cardinal expert but it seems that it is a little late in the year for birds to be nesting. According to what I’ve read, when they leave they usually do not go farther than one-mile away from where they grew up. So they will all probably remain “close by.” I also remember seeing a male cardinal around this past winter – who knows if it was Dad or not. However, I also read that cardinals never nest in the same place twice. It does not seem likely that I will have a cardinal family in the bushes outside this window again in the future. But how fortunate I have been that they have been here at all.
My thoughts follow this course often, and then the other day something else made me stop and gasp. A splash of joyful and exuberant color on my doorstep had been brought to me as surely as a little furry being had delivered her message of peaceful tranquility for so many years. “You are never truly lost.”