This side up

Don't tweet me about cardinals


"Women are nurturers.”

It is a statement of fact. There was no point arguing, yet I couldn’t let it go unchallenged.

“Well, if that’s the case, what does that make us?” I asked Carol.

“Men are providers,” she said.

That was fine. I could see a difference between nurturing and providing, although there appear to be plenty of similarities. But I was still having difficulty knowing what all this had to do with her obsession with cardinals – that’s the avian form of cardinal, not the ones with folded hats, long chains and big crosses around their necks.

So, the reason she is compelled to feed the cardinals in the middle of summer, when they should be able to find plenty of food on their own, is because of a “mothering trait” in the genes of all women.

I suspected something else. I suspect a particular cardinal has discovered how to manipulate Carol.

Carol loves cardinals. Maybe it has something to do with how scarcely they frequent our yard. When she spotted a flit of red in the branches, you would have thought we had a visitor from a far off place, like a penguin walking on our Conimicut beach.

“Don’t move,” she would whisper. “You’ll scare it away.”

The fact that we were inside, scores of sparrows, a couple of mourning doves and at least three squirrels were scoffing seeds just off the back porch made no difference. We would both freeze and wait until every so often, the cardinal would join the feeding masses, although it was skittish and never stayed all that long.

That all started to change when our resident cardinals started having chicks this spring. We heard them before we saw them. There was a lot more tweeting, especially in early morning and evening, and we suspected there might not only be babies but more than a single pair of adults.

A bizarre episode happened one morning when I went out in search of the Journal. The air was alive, underscored by a steady rapping. It sounded strangely metallic, so I ruled out a woodpecker. To my amazement, it was a female cardinal relentlessly attacking her own image in the side mirror of Carol’s car.

The bird was so enraged by the intruder that it only broke off the attack when I was within a couple of feet. By the time I was back in the house with the paper, the rapping resumed. This was not the reclusive cardinal I had known.

Carol was shaken.

“They can kill themselves!” she said.

For the next several days, we put white plastic bags over our side mirrors – it was (forgive us) our cardinal rule.

Soon thereafter, we were introduced to a bolder and more assertive cardinal than we were accustomed to. Cardinal sightings increased, and often they were the first to show up when Carol tossed out a handful of sunflower seeds. The squirrels were a close second.

This need to feed the birds struck me as absurd, if not dangerous, when they had the bounty of Mother Nature at their disposal.

“They won’t know how to forage for themselves,” I reasoned.

The nurturing thing kicked in.

“They have a family to feed. You don’t want them to be away from the nest too long,” she said.

I backed off.

“OK, but then that’s enough feeding the birds for the rest of the summer,” I said, with my foot down.

I didn’t get as much as a nod, so I doubted that would happen.

But then, when Carol was out of town, the cardinals, as if sensing there was a non-believer in their midst, went to work on me.

The first change I noticed was an increased level of cardinal tweets the moment I walked out the door. It was a call to assemble... “Here he comes … the provider.”

As best I could tell, there were two pairs and one juvenile, if not more.

The birds congregated in the privet that arches over the porch, watching intently. I paid little attention, but then one of the males – maybe a provider characteristic – demanded attention. As soon as he spotted me behind the glass door, he was on the porch floor, cocking his head and looking for his handout.

Carol was thrilled to hear this. It meant the cardinals trusted us, but, on reflection, she conceded they had succeeded in training us.

I must confess I was amused, if not enthralled, to have cardinals accompany me to the end of the drive to get the paper. It’s an early morning fan club.

Soon, I was telling Carol, “You don’t need to feed the cardinals, I’ve done it.”

But there are responsibilities, as became evident this weekend.

It was Saturday, and we were in upstate New York when, in dismay, Carol asked what would become of the cardinals. She was serious. She was concerned.

I suggested we could drive home, feed them and return – a nine-hour roundtrip for a few sunflower seeds.

She laughed, but I wondered if this nurturing instinct was that strong. Thankfully it wasn’t, but Carol did call another mother, Phyllis Corbett. Phyllis understood perfectly, and so did the cardinals. The cardinals spotted her and Dave coming in the driveway, and practically ate out of her hand.

I felt a twinge of jealousy. Weren’t they our cardinals?

Is that a trait of the male provider?


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