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Cardinal Rules

One bird feeder hangs from the still empty branch of a sycamore tree. One hangs from the already-budding branch of a saw-tooth oak. Both feeders are full. The birds that frequent these adjacent all-you-can-eat buffets have become braver in recent days. They no longer scatter like dandelion seeds when the back door opens. Instead they flit, without startle, to a perch close enough to their plates that they can watch my movements, know exactly when I’ve left the vicinity, and resume their meals. We are not friends, the birds and I. We are neighbors. The kind who say hello at the mailbox, who are willing to pick up the newspaper when you’re out of town, who remark on the new car in the driveway or compliment the new flowerbed, but who would never even think about being invited in for supper. Good neighbors. One morning last week, just before the cold snap, I walked outside to see both bird feeders being patronized. A male cardinal, all slick and shiny red, stood proudly on the ledge of the feeder dangling from the sycamore tree. He gave me a quick glance and resumed his pecking, a man on a mission and one not about to be deterred by something he’d long ago determined was not a danger. A female cardinal, a color so close to the fresh new leaves of the oak tree that I did not see her at first, bounced quickly away from the feeder at which she’d been nibbling and landed on a nearby branch, her beak clamped onto a single sunflower seed. Her mate’s bravado was matched by her caution. Breeding season for cardinals starts in March and, since there was probably a nest somewhere nearby, the mother’s glare was steady. Even as she raised and lowered her head in an effort to crack open the seed, I remained in the cross hairs of her tiny black eyes. Being the one responsible for filling the feeder did not, apparently, make me any less suspicious. It was amusing to see such stereotypical gender roles being played out among my non-human neighbors. I kept thinking about my avian neighbors long after I left them to their labors and drove off to my own and my curiosity, or, perhaps, just my desire to be a good neighbor, sent me to Google and Wikipedia and all those intangible capitalized places (which have all but taken the place of the tangible lower case places like library and dictionary and encyclopedia) to find out more. I found out that though the bird is most often called the northern cardinal, it is really a southern bird and the first pair did not nest in New England until 1958. I learned that cardinals are counted among the species of birds that “mate for life,” but I also learned that the cardinal’s average life span is one year. Comparing them to other birds known for lifetime monogamy (bald eagle, mute swan, whooping crane) and whose life spans average about 20 years, I found a difference significant enough to make me pull back a little in my admiration of red bird fidelity. I discovered that cardinals do not migrate, that they are fairly social and join in flocks that may even include birds of other species, and that the brightness of the male’s feathers is determined by the carotenoids in his diet. What was most fascinating to me, though, especially in light of my observation of protective mama cardinal and macho daddy cardinal, was the fact that both sexes of the cardinal, not just the male, sing. And their songs sound virtually the same. In most other bird species, the male chooses an exposed perch, a stage, if you will, and offers up his version of a sentimental ballad, a stirring anthem, or a soothing hymn to claim his territory, while the female remains close by, but silent. Not so the cardinals. The cardinals’ two voices multiply the melody and intensify the volume, announce in unison that they, the both of them, are in charge of their chosen province. Which means that my cardinals, the cardinals who had seemed so conventional, so traditional, so “Leave It To Beaver,” were, in fact, the very model of modernity. We are just neighbors, the birds and I. But in taking the time to get to know them, to eliminate the assumption that they are just like all the other birds, and to appreciate what makes them a little more like me, I can be a better neighbor. And that is always one step closer to being friends. Copyright 2017

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