The Cardinal nest was not hard to find… just outside the bay windows over the kitchen sink, the windows looked out over a large holly bush just outside. The birds has built the nest in a crook of branches that was easy to see from the window but difficult to see when walking past the bush from the other side.,, Mom and Dad knew what they were doing when they built it.
The nest was an amazing construction project I had never taken notice of before. A combination of twigs thatched together perfectly so it held a circular form that still stayed balanced in the crook of the branches regardless of wind, water, or how many occupants were in there. What started out as small and cozy soon got rather crowded but the nest held up very well until… well, let’s get to that later.
I never noticed the nest in the construction phase… but one day when cleaning up around the sink I happened to look out the window and see three tiny eggs in a nest… and not soon afterwards the mama bird returned to the nest to warm them. Mama was a cardinal, but female cardinals do not portray the image of the bird we think of when that bird is mentioned. The female cardinal is a duller color than the male (who has the dramatic red feathers, black face, dark eyes and looks like it belongs on the front of the baseball uniform). The female has a little faded red, some orange, and if I had not seen Dad occasionally flying in to check on things I might not have known Mom was a cardinal at all. In what foreshadowed my involvement to come, and love of baseball, I named the birds one day: the dad became Stan (after Stan Musial) and the mom was Gibby (after Bob Gibson).
It was mom’s diligence that was so amazing. She spent all day sitting on these eggs… occasionally flying off to get something to eat, but rarely leaving the eggs for very long before she returned. But when the weather started getting bad was when I not only started noticing Mom, but admiring her. The weather than spring had some periods of wet weather that lasted pretty long… 3-5 days of rain, all day, every day. Mom rarely left the eggs despite the weather, and watching her thru the window getting soaked for hours at a time left me with some serious respect infor how much the mama bird had to go through to get her eggs hatched.
It was around this time that my first idea to intercede happened… the poor mom was getting so wet (and it just seemed so miserable to have to endure days of rain) that I proposed to my neighbor Brian the idea that I put an umbrella up ( stuck in the bushes but high enough to allow mom and dad in and out ) to cover mom from the rain and save the nest from becoming waterlogged. I was told the umbrella might spook the birds and they may abandon the nest (there was no shortage of folks with Bird-Ideas) so I let the soaking continue. But every time I left the house I peeked in on Mom in the nest from the walkway, never getting too close but not exactly tip-toeing by either. After a day or two I found myself calling “hi Mom” to the nest each time I passed it.
A few days later I woke up and found the situation had changed. Mom no longer had three eggs but two baby chicks and an egg in the nest. A day later there were three chicks and let the naming begin. We named the larger two Beanie and Cecil (named after an old TV cartoon sea serpent and his companion) and the third, smaller bird Little Peep.
Mom’s duties changed a bit after this. She still kept the kids warm and safe most of the day, but she flew off for 5-10 minutes at a time and went for food or maybe just for exercise. Dad flew in with food, fed the boys, and flew out. What was remarkable was the way both birds visited the nest. Mom flew in from above from the front but left from the back towards our house. Dad approached from the Magnolia tree, watched the bush and nest for a minute, flew over to the Dogwood tree, scoped it out some more, then landed at the base of the bush and hopped up branch to branch to reach the nest. He fed the boys, and then flew out from the back of the nest towards the house. Dad’s approaches were always the same, and once he hit the nest I had about 20 seconds to try to snap pictures of him with nothing blocking the view. I nearly always failed.
Watching the boys grow was like seeing a home movie of your own life sped up to fit the format. They start out with eyes closed and know nothing of the world, outside of Mom keeping then warm, then Dad feeding them. They felt Dad arrive by the extra weight on the edge of the nest. As soon as he hopped on they all raised their necks and opened their mouths for a feeding. Just to test this one day I waited until Mom was away, put a finger’s pressure on the nest edge, and sure enough they all popped up, mouths agape, waiting for the worm treat.
I told most of the neighbors about the boys and watching them with any free time became my pastime. Little Peep never seemed to get as much food as the other two and that was worrying me. The idea of feeding them worms on my own did not escape me either… anything to help.
The chicks still had their eyes closed and were spending a little more time every day alone in the nest while both mom and dad went out for food. On Memorial Day Weekend I had a small outdoor BBQ for some of the neighbors. After a couple of hours outside on the patio, only a few feet away from the nest, and all of us sneaking some peeks at them, I decided to play wiffleball with one of the neighbors in the driveway. It was during this game (everyone else was still on the patio) that I noticed my dog Jackson barking at the bush where the nest was. I yelled at him to be quiet, sure he was barking at a wiffleball that had landed nearby. A moment later he started climbing in the bush, then got on all fours and was swiping his paws at something UNDER the bush.
Why the red light did not go on sooner is not clear (or it was simply the slowing down of senses after a can of beer), but by the time I got over to the area I noticed that the dog was pawing at the baby birds… all three were on the ground under the bush next to what was left of their once sturdy nest.
The breath went out of me all at once. The birds, who could not see, and were totally helpless, fell roughly 3-4 feet to the ground and could not have had any idea what had just upended their entire being. After getting the dog back inside (and to this day I have non idea WHY the dog decided, after weeks of knowing the birds were there and completely ignoring them, to take down the nest and either play with the birds or eat them depending on your point of view) I found all three birds were still alive but I had no idea if any of the three were injured. The nest was about ½ of the size it started out as and was no longer in the crook of the branches.
Part of bird lore that many espoused was ”don’t touch the birds with your hands or the parents will smell this and abandon them”… so I ran into the house and put on dish gloves (apparently cardinals and other birds have no issues with the smell of rubber) before carefully picking up the three birds, placing them back in their suddenly smaller home, and trying to figure out how to get the nest to STAY in the bush without causing it to tip over again, never mind stay secure while mom and dad were in it or on it. It became pretty clear pretty quick the nest was not going to stay in the bush on it’s own.
Solution #1: I got a shoebox out of the closet, placed the nest in the box, and tried to set to box in the bush so it would be stable. The one good thing that happened was that mom came back to the nest to feed the guys and had no problem with the scent (or lack of) on them or the fact their organic home now said NIKE on the front and back. When she left a few minutes later I decided it was time for a better mousetrap. I took the box into the house with the birds in it (they were adorable) and considered how I could make a square box fit in a holly bush without falling out (or falling apart) and get the box back in the bush so Mom would not return and see them gone and possibly figure she had no reason to return again.
Solution #2 was to put was left of the nest in the shoebox, stuff the sides of the box with heavy paper that kept the nest centered in the box, then tie the box into the bush using heavy duty string. The resulting construction was not pretty, but the box, while occasionally leaning a bit, would not fall out of the bush no matter how much we tried to get it to tip out. When Mom returned 30 minutes later and sat back in the nest everyone breathed a sigh of relief, but she left soon afterwards. A day later I went out with a knife and cut drainage holes in the bottom of the box so the cardboard would not rot and fall out causing another mini-drama.
In bed that night I remember crying like a baby over their plight… to be that helpless, blind, and totally dependent on Mom and Dad and then end up four feet below on the ground with no idea of what happened or why… it just seemed the cruelest thing imaginable. As much I love Jackson, I had a hard time looking at him the same way for a week or so.
The following morning was going to be a watershed moment; we needed to see if the birds were still alive from the fall, if the parents were sticking with them, and if the nest held up overnight and was something the parents could deal with. I really could not wait, so I got up at 2AM, took a flashlight and quickly flashed it at the nest through the kitchen window. I was worried I would scare mom if she was there, but I had to know if she had come back to keep them warm through the night. The options if she did not return were not pleasant.
I took the flashlight, climbed atop the sink, and scanned the bush from left to right. When I thought I saw a glint of a flash back from an eyeball I aimed the light directly at where I thought the nest was. Mom was back! The moment was magical and I called my wife down to show her. Everything was going to be OK.
Or so I thought. Monday morning we noticed only two baby birds in the nest. There was no sign of Little Peep. The last thing I wanted to do was look around the bush for a tiny body, but I did, and could not find one. Little Peep was not in the nest and it appears that Mom or Dad must have taken Little Peep from the nest that night and left him somewhere to die.
Over the next several days Beanie and Cecil grew. They grew a lot. They grew to a point the two of them filled the small nest completely. Then their eyes opened. And they began getting feathers… and through it all they ate and ate and ate and when not eating they slept or cried for more food. Mom was at the nest less and less and Dad kept dropping in more and more (always scoping out the area from two trees, then climbing up the bush from the ground) to feed the guys. By the end of the week both parents were pulling molting feathers from the chicks after the feeding and flying off with them (I surmised that they did not want to leave evidence of their existence by dropping them on the ground under the bush).
Since it was an unusually wet May when we were expecting more rain for a few days, and since I had a bond with the boys and with the parents, I covered the nest area with more holly branches to try to keep them dry so they would not be soaked. Beanie, then Cecil, would sometimes stretch up a bit out of the nest, but neither ever so much as stood up.
The following Monday morning I was in the kitchen and staring at the nest as I did dozens of times a day to see the boys. The bush started shaking a bit, which usually indicates Dad is about to pop up into view with a small green worm for breakfast. Only this time I did not Dad, but a squirrel, who began to climb into the shoebox.
“GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE YOU FUCKING SQUIRREL” (or words to that effect). I leaped at the window, pounded on it, screaming all the time at the squirrel to get lost. It did, but the secret hiding place was secret no more.
I spent the next four days on Squirrel Watch. I sat outside next to the bush for most of the daylight hours with a cell phone in one hand and club in the other. Since the rats with tails are most active in the early AM that was when I needed to be the most vigilant, but how can you watch the nest full time? What if one of the little bastards went to a nocturnal attack plan? I needed information fast.
Step one: THE INTERNET. I did searches on Cardinals, squirrels, and anything in between. Of course one site confirmed that in England squirrels will attack and eat baby birds and bird eggs. Wonderful. An American Squirrel would probably eat the birds and torch the nest.
Step Two: Professional help. I called any agency I could think of from the ASPCA to Mass Audubon to ask 1) Is there anything that will deter squirrels from an area 2) Can I bring the birds inside until they are ready to fly? 3) Can I do anything to keep them from being an entrée for an acorn pest. What I was told actually just made me angry; “this is nature… do not mess with it”. There was NO WAY these birds were going to be a squirrel lunch if had anything to say about it. Not on my watch.
One web site mentioned that squirrels could be deterred from an attic with mothballs, so I bought a bag of them and placed them under the bush in the hope it would repel Rocky and his pals. The smell thru the kitchen window made me sick, but it may have helped. Another thought was if the little buggers have enough to eat they will not go after the boys, so I filled the bird feeders every morning and let the long tailed rats dine on bird seed. I ran the risk of attracting more squirrels to the area, but what else was there to do?
The immediate squirrel threat was past but the issue not yet over when everything changed one Thursday around 4 PM. I had turned to glance out the window at the boys for the umpteenth time (and check for the evil squirrels) when I noticed both Mom and Dad at the side of the nest being, well, noisy. They were both chirping at Cecil incessantly. I grapped my cell phone, which had a terrible little digital camera and video making capabilities, and slowly opened the window so I could get a clear shot of what I thought might be happening. Then Cecil hopped up on the edge of the shoebox (the first time he ever had done so) and with mom and dad chirping at him non-stop he hopped off the box edge to a branch six inches away. He wavered but did not fall.
Now the chirping increased and after 5- 10 seconds (and he never looked back at the folks) he moved his wings once, pushed down off the branch, and flew for time first time in his young life… three seconds later he was in the branch of the Dogwood tree about five yards away and looked quite pleased with himself, if somewhat tired as he stayed there for the next 10 minutes.
The short cell phone video captured his take off but not the flight or landing.
Now it was Beanie’ s turn to try out his wings. He did not get out of the nest for another several minutes (and at one point it seemed like he was not going to come out of there). He flew off to the fence that separates the yard from the driveway, then flew across the driveway to a large four foot hedge. He hit the hedge about a food too low but hung on to the branch and popped up to the top. Full of over confidence he then flew straight into the garage door window before heading back to the fence, where he stayed for the next 15 minutes, contemplating all he had just done.
I tried to follow the boys as they hopped around from tree to tree in my neighbor’s yard and took photos of them as they perched in branches there. I was calling everyone I knew to tell them what had just taken place and must have sounded like an excited 8 year old, but this was something I was truly seeing for the first time.
Where are they now? Neighbor Brian says he sees young full colored cardinals his yard all the time. I saw a beautiful young male and female in the Magnolia tree just yesterday and immediately assumed they could be Beanie and Cecil (Beanie is an androgynous sounding name, don’t you think?). What I want is for them both to come back, land in the holly bush, tap on the kitchen window glass and let me know everything turned out OK.