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It’s time to tell the rest of the story about the feisty little cardinal that couldn’t fly like his nest-mates. In March, as he hopped along the ground, he was attacked by my dog—twice, but still managed to show his gumption. No doubt about it, he was a fighter. As soon as I clasped my hands around his wings and body—to rescue him from further harm by my pooch—his head turned and he seized what was within reach—my index finger. He didn’t release his formidable grip until I walked inside the house and found a basket to put him in.

With a towel draped across the basket, I drove him to a veterinary office that handles injured wildlife. That same evening he was taken to a wildlife sanctuary and rehabilitation center. The days passed. It took me a while to summon the courage to call the center to inquire as to his recovery. Surely he made it, I thought. He was such a fighter. And I couldn’t see any obvious signs of wounding. But I really hate to bother those people at the center. I know they’re crazy this time of year tending to young wildlife. Maybe I should drive on over there. Oh, heck, that would be an even bigger bother than a phone call.

On the eleventh day I called. “Oh, yes,” the woman said, after I’d given her my name, “here’s the record. He just died this morning.”

“Oh, no!” I said. “Are you sure?”

“Let me check.” She put me on hold and came back. “Yes, ma’m, I’m sorry, but he didn’t make it. They had him on an antibiotic. But he was gone this morning.”

I’ve thought a lot about that fledgling. I’ve felt responsible for his demise since it was my dog that did the damage. But where do I go with that?

So, here is what I have done: I take particular pleasure in every cardinal that I see. A few days ago, as I sat on my deck, the one pictured above alighted on the limb of the pecan tree and hung out for a while. Yesterday I cherished the sight of a spectacularly red adult cardinal zinging through the boughs of the trees. And always, I have the memory, imprinted on my finger, of the grip, the powerful determination of that little red-feathered fighter.

(Scroll down to “Red-feathered Fighter” to see the previous post on this bird.)

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It wasn’t until after I’d taken this photo of the wild cherry tree in my yard two weeks ago that I noticed the splotch of red in the lower left side of the picture. Since then I’ve seen an abundance of flashing red feathers. A family of cardinals has been busily engaged in flying lessons, with apparent success. When I step out my back door, there is a flurry of activity, as the winged gang moves from the ground to safer harbor in the branches of trees.

However, two days ago, when I grabbed the hose and began to water some potted plants, I noticed, hopping on the ground, a young cardinal that either hadn’t had enough training to know to flee from me, hadn’t gotten properly acquainted with all of his flight gear, or had some faulty apparatus.

Twenty-five feet away from us was a large threat: my seventy-pound dog. I called Dobie into the house and hoped, with a little time, my red-feathered friend would get some make-up flying lessons.

Two hours later I’d forgotten about the little critter and went outside to do a chore. Shortly, I heard Dobie barking, then looked up, horrified, to see a little red object erratically jumping about under a gardenia bush, Dobie crouched inches away. In the next several seconds, Dobie got the bird into his mouth, dropped it, grabbed it again, and ran. All the while, the feisty fellow was putting up a howl.

My feet moved fast and my howl was louder than his. Dobie dropped the bird again, was confused by my vocal display, and allowed me to collar him. I got him into the house, called the local vet who takes in injured wildlife, changed my clothes, and looked for a container for the bird. When I finally got back outside, the bird was gone.

Good, I thought, he wasn’t badly injured and was tough enough to get away. Has he learned yet how to fly?

Yesterday morning I scanned the yard for signs of the slow learner. Darn. There he was again, hopping around the base of a tree. I brought the dog inside as soon as he was finished with his business. Over the next couple of hours I kept watch, only to have it confirmed that, despite the efforts of an avian parent or sibling (I couldn’t tell which), to rouse the little guy into flight (by swooping, wings-a-flapping, in front of him, as if to say, “Do it like this, Leadfeathers!”), he continued to use his landing gear, hopping, hopping, hopping.

I left the house for several hours, the dog locked inside. I met a friend for a picnic lunch and told him my dog and bird story. We had just finished a meal of baked chicken, furnished by yours truly. My friend argued that, in saving the bird, I was not only depriving my dog of doing something (hunting) that came naturally to him, I was, hypocrite of hypocrites (he wasn’t quite that harsh), disavowing the carnivore in me, not taking responsibility for the demise of the chicken I had just eaten. And, besides, if the cardinal cannot fly, he cannot survive. We live in a world of the hunter and the hunted.

He made a good point: I’m no different from my dog. We agreed that we humans are separated from our food sources. When I purchase a chicken that comes to me wrapped in plastic, I don’t compare it to the one in my yard wrapped in red feathers.

These conflicts are worthy of focus and contemplation. However, ife, in all of her feathered and plastic-wrapped glory, is full of contradiction, some of it resistant to logic, no matter how magnificently crafted. Passion and folly more often rule human behavior—to our detriment and betterment, I am sure.

When I got home last evening I again scanned the yard for evidence of the cardinal. I let the dog loose and, within a matter of minutes, I saw the little bird hopping across an expanse of green, no tree trunk close by. Dobie quickly spotted the flashing target, bounded after it, and backed the squawking bird into the lower branches of the same gardenia bush where the fight had begun the day before.

In a heartbeat I was there, watching Dobie grab at the bird and release it as it fluttered and fought. I got between the two, scooped up the cardinal as he scuttled into a mass of weeds at my fence line, and looked at Dobie. Out of his mouth hung a long red feather. Onto my finger, the little bird, furious at his situation and not ready to relinquish the fight, had latched. Not with his feet, but with his beak.

All the way into the house, he held his grip, finally releasing as I set him into the bottom of a wicker wastebasket. I put in a jar lid filled with water, which he decided made a better perch than drinking receptacle, and quieted as I covered the basket with a hand towel.

Off to the vet went Dobie, the red-feathered fighter, and I. Some stories have a life of their own, logic be damned. What remains for me is the memory of that beak, locked onto my index finger. That feisty creature was doing his thing, fighting for his life, and, somehow, so was I. Dobie is doing just fine.







Ellen Hamilton

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