All week I’ve been obsessed with a nest of baby cardinals on the vine outside our bedroom window. I first became aware of it watching cardinals swoop into the clematis on our terrace. I heard chirping from my bedroom and looked out of the bow window to see a beautifully constructed nest.
I wish I could live in that nest in the vines – all green shade and sunlight – high above the terrace, safely tucked against the windowpane. There were three tiny birds inside – scrawny ugly things – with long scruffy necks. I looked in just as Mr. Cardinal swooped in to feed them. I saw his red feathers flapping and the three little pink boat mouths upturned, receiving the offerings before he flew away.
Mrs. was more cautious. She evidently didn’t want to draw attention to the nest. Often she waited in the silver maple – an orange flutter of wings in the branches, cocking her head prettily, before taking a circumvented route, landing on a branch below the nest, and then flying up to feed her young.
I watched the babies when the mother was away. At the beginning of the week, they draped their heads over the side of the nest like finger puppets without their puppeteer. But when the mother returned they sprang to life, straining towards her with upstretched beaks, amid an outcry of tweeting.
On Tuesday they were louder still. And bigger. It didn’t take many worms down the gullet to grow these birds. They even began preening themselves in the nest.
By Wednesday the mother seemed bolder and the father less evident. During the morning, I watched her swoop in and interrupted my writing to listen to an outcry of tiny peeps. I couldn’t stop myself from repeatedly stepping carefully to the sofa in front of the window to get a good look.
Minutes on end were spent holding my iphone in front of the nest hoping to catch the mother in action – but she was too cunning for me. Besides, I didn’t want to frighten her off.
Soon the baby birds were too big for the nest. The mother became more bold, swooping in repeatedly, not to feed but to move them along. One baby launched quickly. I watched it flutter across the air to the nearby silver maple. The other two spent the morning moving gradually from nest to vine. They were no longer scruffy but their feathers remained colorless, their tiny heads tufted in fluff. Their beaks were ugly white lines on the front of their bug-eyed faces. And what a lot of squeaking they did! By 3 o clock they were chatting up a storm - back and forth – one peeping three times – the second weaker bird answering more briefly. The mother swooped in from various angles – demonstrating every conceivable way you could fly from the nest – to a branch of a near by tree – in the other direction to a different branch, or to a window ledge.
The babies flapped lopsidedly, giving the suggestion of a sideways yawn, with wings like cobweb. When they preened I got a glimpse of their raw scruffy necks. When they lost their balance they fluttered in order to right themselves and in this way gradually moved to further branches, stood on these branches, tweeting back and forwards for an hour. They began to riff on their tweeting, taking on a different rhythm – while the father in the branches, seemed to keep watch.
The nest no longer looked cozy. They used it now only to move across to the other side of the vine – and didn’t seem inclined to settle in. The mother was tireless. Only once did she stop to feed the smaller one– but most of the time seemed to be taunting them to hop towards her before swooping off.
The cardinals looked bigger by the hour. When I returned from the supermarket at 4 only one was left. It was the weaker of the two – the answerer – now silent and alone. The father came twice with something green in his beak and then flew away. After which the baby began to sing again. The mother had disappeared entirely. But somewhere in the silver maple came an answer from another baby bird. The remaining baby sat on the vine without moving. It began to rain but he kept chirping through the rain and out the other end of it.
He fanned his feathers. The feathers didn’t look great. They gave the impression of grey stockings with ladders and holes in them. He peeped in an iambic metrical rhythm, with a final unstressed syllable thrown in for variation:
u-u- /u-u-/ u- / u- / u-u-u- / u-u- / u-u / u-u-u-/ u-u / u- /u-u-u- /u- / u-u /u-u /u-u-u-
The distant bird was less responsive. Maybe he was fed up. It was like he was out of radio contact and the fledgling was sending messages in Morse code. Come in. Come in please.
At 5 the bird fell from his perch in a spasm of flutters – landing two feet down the vine. After a silence it began working its way up to the aforementioned rhythm of tweeting. And kept this up for half an hour.
I watched until 6. What was wrong with me? The flight of this baby bird had become at once the most momentous and the most trivial possible thing I could focus on. Birds take flight all the time. Why should I care? But even Basil the dachshund kept watch, sitting on the sofa with his head cocked, just as transfixed as me. Then Elliot came home and watched with us as well.
Finally we gave it up. I went downstairs to put some salmon in the oven. I sent a message to Alex about his Burning Man blog. And when I stepped out to see the vine from the terrace, for some reason I couldn’t see the bird. I darted back upstairs, looked at the perch where he’d been for the last eight hours. Only to find he had gone.
It’s like when someone dies. They don’t want you to see the crucial moment. When my father died it was after a day of sitting beside his bed. He waited until me and my mother were out of the room for ten minutes. That’s when he left us. It was the same with this bird. It didn’t want us to watch the flight.
But I could still hear him on the terrace. I am so familiar now with his little song, his call and response – that I can identify it amidst the other birds. He’s either in the silver maple or in the hawthorn tree. I can hear but cannot see him, no matter how I try. I can hear the rhythm of the song of the last baby bird: u-u-u-/ u-u- / u-u- / u-u-u-u-u-