March 2, 2002
WINTER AT THE CARDINAL CAFE
Grace will be ours when we will grow our wings
With all the wonder of birds
I've never paid much attention to birds before, but when I sit on my new sun porch, I am sitting in their midst; they're to the right of me, the left of me, and over my head, perching on the glass roof.
They were the most casual of visitors all summer and fall, and since their coloring fades into the foliage around them, often I only knew they were there because of the movement in the trees. So I put up a birdfeeder right outside the sun porch to get an up close view of them. It's been an exceptionally mild winter, though, so up til now they've regarded it more as an occasional convenience than a necessary daily stop.
Now we are in the middle of a heavy snowstorm, and my diner is the only that's open. Against the backdrop of trees drooping with snow, the birds are no longer camouflaged. I can see fifty, maybe even sixty birds at once. Not just the bright cardinals, either, whose bright red splotches so gladden the dreary winter, but the chickadees and finches, the swallows and nuthatches, the bluejays, mourning doves, and dark-eyed juncos. The trees are shimmering with movement as they flit from branch to branch to birdfeeder and back.
Of course the sneaky, conniving squirrels don't concede for a moment that that food belongs to birds. They climbed the pole to the bird feeder and helped themselves, so I greased the pole. They jumped from the porch roof down to the feeder and helped themselves, so I moved the feeder. They don't discourage that easily; every day I could watch them sitting and scheming. They'd climb to the gas meter and plot the trajectory to the feeder. Nope, they couldn't jump that far. Then to the windowsill to plot the trajectory. Nope. Then to the roof. Nope. Then to the tree branches, which are too skinny to support them. Nope. But they're still plotting. They haven't given up, but I have; I just sprinkle bird seed on the ground as well.
The squirrels and birds are prime television for cats, who crouch at the window, quivering, staring like teenage boys watching Brittany, following every movement and emitting whimpering noises. It must be as challenging to the eyes as op art, because after a while, the cats go into complete sensory overload and curl up on my lap for a nap. I keep watching, though. It's hard to read when the eyes are constantly attracted by all that movement.
A bird ballet is going on, you see, exquisitely choreographed so that nobody runs into anybody else. The ballet depends on staging areas where the birds can sit and wait for their cue; they perch on branches and twigs, on the tomato hoops, and on the tall wrought iron flowerpot stand the feeder hangs from. Often two or three of the small birds will join each other for a meal, but anything over that number seems to be critical mass; just one unexpected movement or the arrival of another bird will precipitate a mass flutter.
The little birds are the corps de ballet, deferring to the lead dancers, the cardinals, who seem to regard the feeder as their own. The smaller cardinals are usually willing to share; they'll do dainty little pas de deux on the feeder with the finches and with each other. But not grandpa cardinal. He's the star of the show, a portly patriarch with all the charm of Slobodan Milosevic, and he only performs solos. When he's dining and other birds approach, he gives them a dead-eye stare, the cardinal equivalent of "Go ahead, make my day."
It works, too; the smaller birds stop dead in the air, do a 180, and fly off as fast as they know how. Even his mate isn't allowed to approach while he's at supper. I'm told that in spring male cardinals sweetly carry seeds to their lady love, but if so, she'd better enjoy it while she can; from what I've seen, once he's got her, she's on her own.
Now that it is snowing, there is more desperation in the feeding, perhaps because under the protection of the patio umbrella, the feeder offers not just food but shelter from the snow. The smaller birds are stacking up at the feeder, as many as six at a time, with another twenty or thirty scouring the snow beneath for the scattered seeds. The crowded conditions seem to make them more polite; they don't miss a beat pecking at the food, but they gracefully move over to make room for newcomers.
Every day when I go out to feed them, they flit to safety in the trees. It's not like they don't know I'm the provider of food; they watch me fill the feeder and sprinkle seeds on the ground. And yet whenever I go out to the sunroom, they see me through the window and suddenly a hundred tiny wings beat the air as they make their speedy retreat. It's the most amazingly beautiful, fragile, look-but-don't-touch world.
I'm so glad I finally noticed it.
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