When I was a kid, I’d sometimes go with my father to visit his favorite aunt, Florence. She was often seated in front of a large window from which she could see the birds that came to feeders in her yard. She’d tell me little stories about their antics and how much pleasure it gave her to watch them. I’d smile politely and murmur something about how that must be fun, but inside I was thinking, If watching birds ever becomes my idea of fun, shoot me.
But now, many years later, I have discovered my inner Aunt Florence. A wide variety of birds visit the feeders in our yard every day, and because I’m prone to staring out my office window when I should be writing, I see many of them. One in particular caught my eye a couple of summers ago. With his small dark head and sparse reddish feathers, he looked like a tiny red-bodied vulture. I was curious enough about his species to check him out on Google. To my surprise, my exotic bird turned out to be a cardinal.
I know what the judgmental among you are thinking: Really, Susan? You didn’t know what a cardinal was? Because that’s exactly what I’d be thinking, were I reading someone else’s story of a mystery bird that turned out to be one that most five-year-olds could readily identify. In my defense, I present exhibit A.
Now, seriously, would you recognize him? I did some further research. His bald head, I discovered, could be due to head mites, which cause incessant scratching and subsequent loss of feathers. Or he could be one of the relatively rare birds who experience complete loss of head feathers during molting season. The prognosis wasn’t good if the cause was mites, but if it was molting, his chance for recovery of his crowning glory was good.
He seemed to come only in the early morning and in the evening just before dusk when there were few of his kin around—almost as if he were embarrassed by his looks.
When a pert female cardinal with a very perky crest of her own gave him short shrift one day at the feeder, I felt indignant. Who was she to ignore him so callously? Didn’t he deserve love, a family, respect from his fellow birds, no matter what he looked like? My inner “fixer” was awakened on his behalf. I searched online for something I could do, some kind of special feed, maybe, that might speed regrowth of his feathers. Alas, there was no way for me to help.
As someone hardwired to find answers, and to offer help even when it isn’t asked for—or perhaps even wanted—it was hard to accept that there was nothing I could do but wait and see what happened. Finally, one early morning I thought I detected new growth on his bald little head. I watched over the next few days, and then I was sure. He was on the road to recovery.
His regrowth progressed until one day when I saw him arrive at the feeder, he looked at me through my office window (no seriously, he did) and posed for my camera quite jauntily. Reminding me that sometimes all you can do is wait, and sometimes, that’s all you need to do. A valuable lesson for cardinals, and for people, too.