One of the few things I miss from living in the South is red. I miss red leaves when the trees turn in the fall. The yellow/gold aspens can be breathtaking, but I grew up with the brilliant scarlet of trees that don’t grow here and every year I keep thinking I’ll see some red. I also miss cardinals. Growing up at my parents’ house, we were surrounded by woods. We lived at the end of a dead end, and at the edge of about 20 acres of undeveloped forest right smack-dab in the middle of a good-sized suburb. Because of the layout of the roads, the only way you could get into those woods without going through someone’s back yard, was at the top of our driveway. Those woods were my backyard for more than 15 years.
We had critters. Raccoons, possums, frogs, lizards, snakes, all seemed to find their way into the yard at some point or another. I remember catching a snapping turtle when I snuck down to the private lake behind the house to go fishing. I also brought home catfish, bream and a couple of small-mouth bass from time to time. Yes, I cleaned them and my mother cooked them for me. Early days, there was a horse back there, too, and I did more sneaking to try to ride it, but that’s another story.
The woods were full of birds, too, but none of them got my attention the way the cardinals did. I loved their brilliant contrast to the endless shades of green, and it didn’t take long to learn how to imitate their high-pitched tweet/squeak call. There were mornings when I carried on endless conversations with the cardinals. I have no idea what I said, and I’m sure I spoke with a heavy accent.
My college was only across town, set on a single city block that was gorgeously landscaped. It truly was the “last bastion of Southern womanhood” and in good weather all the “quads” were full of students lolling around catching some rays while they studied. I loved wandering around the campus, finding places to bird watch, and was especially excited when I noted a family of cardinals that seemed to have taken up residence somewhere in the quad between the main classroom building and the science hall. That area was small, criss-crossed by sidewalks, covered in lush grass that just begged you to walk barefoot and surrounded by azaela shrubs against the walls and stately old magnolia trees at strategic areas for shade. I used to climb the magnolia trees in the evening and watch the passers by. That’s another story, too.
One afternoon in the spring of my freshman year, I headed to my psychology class. Class was in the basement of the main classroom building, which, as with the majority of the structures on campus, looked like an Anglo-Norman church. From the back basement door that walked out into the quad, to the roof was a very high four stories, since the rooms had twelve to fifteen-foot ceilings. As I got to the door, I was surprised by the sight of a cardinal in free fall from the gutter above all the way to the ground. Just when it seemed impossible to shirk the pull of gravity, he pulled up almost right in front of me and landed lightly on his feet. We’re talking a drop of close to 100 feet. He cocked his head at me, gave me a severe tweet/squeak and flew off on his errands. I started class with a smile.
Afterward, I had a paper to read with comments from the prof, so I decided to sit in the quad while it was still warm. I went out the same door, and found a spot in the middle of the grass, away from the buildings and trees, out in the sun. I plopped down with my books and bag and started reading my paper. I noticed, once again, that the cardinal was still zooming right around me, low flying with dips and dives and lots of tweeting/squeaking going on, but I didn’t focus on it too much, being preoccupied with my paper.
All at once, I heard a strange sound just off to my right and then another. It was a fltfltfltfltttttttttt sort of a sound, and then the air seemed to part right in front of me and suddenly, there was a baby cardinal perched on my knee! It looked almost exactly like this:
It had this “Oh, shit, what have I done now?” expression on its face, and I think my own expression was pretty close to that. Paper forgotten, I just sat there for a moment, feeling the almost infinitesimal weight of this tiny creature on my knee. I saw his little sides heaving with the effort of learning to fly, noticed the surprise and shock of probably landing some place totally unexpected, but did not see fear. Then I realized that I was being dive-bombed right and left my a very agitated mom and dad cardinal. They were going pretty crazy worried that Junior was so close to one of the Big Guys. I didn’t want to move too suddenly, but wasn’t sure what I could do to reassure everyone that there was no danger here. I still had that myth in the back of my head that if I touched the baby, the parents wouldn’t have anything more to do with it, and I didn’t want that.
So, after a moment of silent communion, I slowly inched my index finger down my thigh until I barely touched the tiny bird toes. I nudged his feet just a little bit. Like an infant grasping, he put one foot, then the other, on my finger and held on tight. Slowly, so very slowly, I lifted him up. It was like moving a teaspoon of air. I leaned over as far as I could, reached out and set Junior down in the thick grass and sat straight again. He blinked at me. Mom and dad swooped and dove around me. Then he sort of shook himself a little bit and in another burst of fltfltfltlfltfltflt….he was off for the next part of the flying lesson.
That little bit of magic happened thirty-six years ago and I have never forgotten it. To this day, watching baby birds is one of the great joys of my life. And it’s why I still miss red.