By Jack Canson © April 11, 2021
This was a bird we had happily observed since he was a fledgling, just out of the nest and flitting about experimentally, learning his wings. He was instantly recognizable. If we had been presented with a lineup of ten similar juvenile Cardinals we would have picked him out in a heart beat.
The perky little crest atop his head, the way he cocked his head this way and that, checking things out, the way in a split second he could bound up and away in perfect, swift flight from the roof of our porch outside our bedroom window into a clutch of trees and bushes in front of our house. Zip, he was a streak, effortlessly darting from our porch to tree limbs and beyond.
He had character. He was unique. He was interested in us.
We are assured he was singularly recognizable because we had other Cardinals in our front yard from time to time. But none had ever alit on our front porch close to our bedroom window. This one had, several times.
We felt sure around a year earlier we had seen the mating pair of Cardinals who had produced this young male. They didn’t hang around but we saw them often enough, high in our front yard trees that we knew they were nesting there. When we first observed the fledgling male, our Cardinal, his less colorful mother was always close by, and watchful.
Around this time our interest in this specific and beautiful young Cardinal began to increase. We were mildly aware and began to reflect on the belief many have that Cardinals may represent the spirit if not the persona of a loved one who has died.
We were in that sad category. Our son had died at the age of 27 four years earlier. Our grief had never subsided although we strained day by day to carry on in ways we thought appropriate to his memory and to family and friends.
And then, after this time of unrelenting grief, often to the porch roof outside our bedroom window came this beautiful young bird. The Cardinal. The Red Bird.
He came often enough that we could recognize and register his development from a fledgling to a juvenile and now to a young adult. First just learning to fly, with his mother close by. Then alone, spirited, eager. He would hop along the top of the front porch, pecking for seeds or insects, then of a sudden propel himself up with a flutter of wings before shooting off over the lawn and into the trees and bushes so quickly we couldn’t see where he lit. His every movement was a fascination to us.
More than a few times he approached the exterior window in our bedroom, alighting on the sill of our double-paned glass and screen looking out over our porch and front yard. My fascination with him became more mysterious when I came to believe that this young Cardinal was intent on making some kind of connection with us. Again, I reflected on the commonly held belief that red birds, Cardinals in particular, might represent in some unfathomable way the spirit of a lost loved one.
I did not dwell on that concept. Our son was precious, powerful, a genius, a very special person. We are open minded about what might constitute the afterlife. But I did not see any way to connect this beautiful young bird’s behavior to the wonderful young son we had lost.
Then one day something happened that caused my attitudes and beliefs to tumble astray. I went outside early one day to get into my truck to drive to the grocery store. My truck was parked adjacent to my wife’s car, off the driveway and shrouded on one side by shrubs and bushes. I had backed my truck up toward the garage in order to load some refuse for the dump. When I went to open the door I saw the young Cardinal flitting around in the bushes on the other side of my truck. It was the closest I had been to him without a window between us.
Again, he seemed to be inquisitive, not wary. Before getting in my truck I held out my hand and fingers, gently beckoning him to come to me. I remembered my grandmother and her parakeet Petey who would perch on her fingers and peck a kiss on her lips. Although he would not perch on my hand, he didn’t fly away but continued to hop around the bushes by the driveway. So I got inside my truck and lowered the window to continue watching him. I sat still without starting the engine. After a moment or two, the Cardinal hopped out of the bushes and perched atop the rear view mirror on the passenger side, his head cocked, his eyes looking straight across the seat at me. I thought, My God, he’s going to come inside the truck. He wants to go for a ride the way our dogs do.
I held out my finger at arm’s length, reaching within a foot or two of him, hoping he could see it as another perch and hop on in. He turned his head from side to side as if reconnoitering the situation, as if considering whether to come to me. But after a few seconds, the Cardinal flipped off the mirror back onto the bushes, then flapped his wings as if to dust them off, rose clear of the bushes and flew into the branches of a large tree in the front yard. He still seemed to be watching me as I quietly opened the door and got out to get a better look at him. Then he dove out of the tree and sailed away.
As I drove onto the street I was troubled by wondering if I should no longer doubt the idea that in some way, large or small, there was some afterlife connection between this Cardinal, this Red Bird, and our lost son.
During the several winter months that passed we saw our young Cardinal often enough that we could recognize his growth and development. From the window in our second story bedroom we looked out over the roof of the front porch. There were often a few sparrows pecking at seeds and insects that fell from the limbs of a large gum tree nearby. Occasionally, our young Cardinal would alight on the porch roof too, hopping systematically from one end to the other, pecking the gravelly rooftop, even drinking from small puddles after a shower. He was no longer accompanied by any other Cardinal, and he seldom lingered. Squirrels would also sometimes bound across the roof, making acrobatic leaps from the roof to tree limbs. But twice, while I was stretched on our bed reading or watching television, I was surprised to see our Cardinal perched on the window sill looking through the glass at me. He would take a look then hop off the sill and fly back into the trees.
Then came bad weather. Snow and ice and sub zero temperatures that are rare in our part of northeast Texas. Pipes burst, we went without water in the house for days. We saw very few birds for weeks and we did not see our Cardinal.
To make plumbing repairs, portions of the walls in our laundry room and a bathroom were removed. A three foot square of tile flooring in the kitchen was also taken up. Several parts of the exterior brick outside the kitchen were knocked out. A ten foot wooden chase covering water pipes leading to an upstairs bathroom from the patio had to come down. Many houses in town suffered similar difficulties and plumbers were hard to come by. It was an agonizing four weeks before finally all the busted pipes were replaced and hot and cold water were restored throughout the house. Then repairs to walls and floors began.
Some of these repairs I was able to undertake myself after acquiring a few necessary tools. Others, such as replacing the flooring over the hole in the kitchen floor would have to wait until a craftsman was available, and all were booked up for weeks.
Late one afternoon I was installing new shelving in the laundry room after having patched the wall and moving the washer and dryer back into place. This is not a room, actually, just a nook off the hallway, only a few steps to the door to the garage. Much of the prep work I was doing in the garage, with the garage door open. When I finished screwing the last of the shelves into the wall, it was twilight time, and rapidly growing dark. I pressed the button to lower the garage door and when it began to move I noticed a flutter of wings and the Cardinal flew off the rail it had been resting on and perched atop the frame of a large topographical map of California hanging on the back wall. I raised the double wide garage door to full open again and waited to see what the Cardinal would do.
Usually, if a bird is inside the garage or the house, when a door or window is opened and you stir around, the bird will dive outside and fly away. But not this time. Our Cardinal was in no hurry to leave and I was in no particular hurry for him to do so. At least, not until Nancy had seen him. I closed the hallway door and went upstairs to get her. She followed me into the garage and we watched the Cardinal and he watched us.
Like many people, we’ve had small birds become semi-trapped in the garage and inside the house more than a few times in the twenty-odd years we have lived here. Because we sometimes leave the door from the kitchen to the back yard open for our dogs to come and go, it was not too unusual for a sparrow or a finch to get inside. Before Nancy blocked the chimney in the unused fireplace, swifts would sometimes get inside and flutter about. Typically, when we realized a bird was in the house the bird would try to hide. They would tuck themselves behind blinds or curtains. We always followed the same procedure. While they were hiding we would close all the doors to the room they were in, then open a door or window to the outside. Then we would sneak up on the bird where it was hiding. Sometimes we could catch it in our hands and take it outside before turning it loose. When we were unable to catch the bird, our movements would stir it up enough that it would fly around the room and eventually find the open door or window.
Because the garage door is so large and wide, when it is opened birds seldom need more than a few seconds to find their way out. We had this experience dozens of times with other birds. But our Cardinal refused to fly lower than a foot or so from the ceiling when he made his way around the garage. He did not seem stressed or injured and we felt a responsibility to get him outside instead of staying trapped in our garage all night. We tried lifting broom sticks and waving a towel to encourage him to leave. But nothing worked. I puttered around in the garage, putting up tools, waiting for the Cardinal to decide to leave. He remained perched on either the map frame or atop the garage door motor, watching me.
It was now quite dark outside. In every case I could remember when a bird was trapped inside the house or garage, the bird would become panicky. They would become stressed and bump into walls or the ceiling before finding their way out or getting caught by us. This was not the case with our Cardinal. He showed very little signs of agitation. If anything, he seemed to express displeasure when I made movements to encourage him to leave. So I gave up and decided to leave the garage door wide open and go inside and leave him alone. I expected he would become bored without me meddling around and would depart within a few minutes.
Half an hour or so later I opened the hallway door to the garage and there was our Cardinal, perched on the map frame. He didn’t move until I approached the back wall and then he only flew to the top of the open garage door, then back again to the frame. The ceiling of our garage is 12 feet high. The garage is stuffed, cluttered with tools and boxes of stuff, impossible to move freely around. I felt a strong necessity to coax him outside lest he injure himself. But nothing I could do would cause him to fly below the top of the garage door. When he perched to rest he seemed to look carefully at me and I looked thoughtfully at him. The idea that Cardinals appear to represent the spirit of a lost loved one wrapped tightly around me.
Yet I knew that this beautiful young bird that we had been observing since he left the nest could not survive if he remained trapped too long in our garage. As I looked through the open door to the darkness outside it occurred to me that the contrast between the bright fluorescent light inside the garage and the darkness outside the door might be an impediment to his escape. I knew that he could see. He didn’t fly into walls. He always seemed to know where he was and what he was doing. It could be that he didn’t like the idea of flying out of a brightly lit space into a dark one. So I turned off the garage lights, left the garage door wide open, and closing the hallway door behind me went upstairs to prepare for bed.
Another half hour or so I figured the Cardinal had had enough time to find his way out, so I went downstairs, opened the door to the garage and reached for the wall switch inside and turned on the bright garage overhead lights. There he was, still perched on the map frame. It was getting late, I was ready to go to bed, I didn’t want to leave the garage door open all night because in our neighborhood we some times have coyotes, other wildlife such as raccoons and possums, and other creatures I didn’t want inside. I needed some kind of net, like the big mouth fishing net I no longer had because it had gone with the boat when I sold it after our son died. So I scouted around and found some plastic net-like material I had used in a project. I tried to fashion an opening with baling wire and taped it to a broom handle. It was not long enough for me to reach the Cardinal and my efforts to get him to fly within reach were unsuccessful. I worried more now about stressing this beautiful bird. I decided to turn off the garage lights and leave the door open again, hoping this time he would make his way to the outside.
About one hour later I was ready for bed. Nancy was already asleep bundled up under sheets and covers. I went downstairs again, opened the hallway door to the garage, and turned on the fluorescent lights. All was still and quiet. I moved around a little, scanning, searching. No sign of our young Cardinal. The open garage door and lights off strategy had worked! He had found his way outside and all was well.
I closed the garage door and the hallway door, poured myself a nightcap and went upstairs to our bedroom. I felt all was well and the Cardinal was nestled somewhere safely in the tree limbs, safe in the element where he belonged. I felt good. I felt we had experienced something special, a prolonged visitation from a bird we had been keeping our eyes on.
I put on pajamas, brushed my teeth, and settled into my side of the bed with the lamp on while I took my nightly vitamins. I picked up a magazine to read for a few minutes before drifting off to sleep. As I tried to read, I found myself having to re-read a sentence I had just looked at. Something seemed to be interfering with my concentration, even with my self awareness. It was that feeling we sometimes get when we sense someone or something is looking at us. I dropped the magazine and sank my head deeper into the pillow and as I looked up there was our Cardinal, perched on a blade of the ceiling fan above our bed, looking down at us.
There he was, in our bedroom. How he got into the house from the garage and then upstairs into our room I had no idea. Except that it was obvious that he had to have entered through the hallway door while it was open. This is a narrow passageway and it was hard to imagine that a bird could have entered through that doorway while I was standing there or nearby without my noticing, but he had. Even harder to imagine is why the Cardinal, once inside the house with access to five rooms downstairs and five more on the second floor should choose to navigate into our bedroom and alight on the ceiling fan above our bed.
It was beginning to feel surrealistic, supernatural. Could it be anything but true that the Cardinal refused to leave the garage and then followed me upstairs to our bedroom because he wanted to be with us?
I woke Nancy and told her we had a visitor in our bedroom. She was a bit hazy for a moment, not sure what had caused me to wake her, so I explained that our young Cardinal was no longer in the garage (oh, good) but wait, he was in our house, in our bedroom, perched now not on the ceiling fan but on the frame of a painting I had made of our son, hanging above our bed. As she looked up and saw the Cardinal, she smacked wide awake and stepped out of the bed to help me shut the doors to the hallway, the bathroom, and her office, confining him in our bedroom, although in retrospect that seems hardly necessary. He was not interested in going anywhere. We pulled up the blinds to a window, opened it, and removed the screen and storm window, opening a clear and wide path to the night outdoors. While we were doing these things, the Cardinal watched us, somewhat critically it seemed, cocking his head to one side and then the other. I picked up a pair of pajama bottoms and stood on the bed where I could reach the ceiling, which is much lower than the ceiling of the garage. Then he began a regular circuit around the room, always eluding me. He would flit from the portrait of Barney to a door to Nancy’s closet, then to the curtain rod above the windows, then back to the ceiling fan, and again to the picture frame. Every time I was close enough to grab him, he popped up out of reach and took another perch. None of our efforts could coax him to fly out the open window. Finally, when he alit on the curtain rod while I was standing nearby I was able to capture him in my pajama bottoms. I held him softly in my hand a few moments while we looked him over, admiring his beauty and noticing how unstressed, how unworried he seemed to be. Goodbye little Cardinal, we said to him, come back again to visit, but now it is time for you to go home and to sleep. I extended my arms outside the open window, opened my hands, and he took off into the night. We were relieved. We smiled and congratulated each other and prepared to get back in bed. But before I could close the window, our Cardinal flew back into the room.
Once again he perched on a blade of the ceiling fan, occasionally alternating to perch atop the frame of the portrait of Barney. Again we tried a few times to encourage him back to the open window or to alight where I might catch him with my pajamas. It could not have been more clear that he was determined to stay in our room. So we decided to leave the window open, turn off the lights, and go to sleep. If our young Cardinal wanted to spend the night with us even though the window was open, who were we to deny him. As I dozed off with a small night light on next to the bed the last thing I saw before my eyes shut for the night was the beautiful young Cardinal perched above us on the ceiling fan blade. Perfectly calm. Like us, he appeared to be resigned to settle in for the night and leave things as they were.
It was our hope, if not expectation, that with all the lights off in our bedroom and adjoining rooms, and with three dogs sleeping in Nancy’s office, and with a large window wide open to the front yard, that young Mister Cardinal would at some point hop to the window sill and fly away. As I fell into sleep it occurred to me how odd it was that during all the tussling around we had done and with the Cardinal fluttering from one place to another in our room, none of our dogs had shown any interest at all. I was sure that when we woke in the morning he would be gone. He had been outside that window once. It was familiar territory, a familiar escape route. He had been out a short distance, looped, and flown back inside. He was determined to remain with us for a while, clearly. Perhaps he simply was waiting to see us go safely to sleep before he left.
To our surprise, both Nancy and I slept soundly the entire night. No bathroom breaks, no stirring around to see if our Cardinal was still in the room. We are early risers, but this morning we slept until half past six. When we awakened and turned on the lights the first thing we saw was our Cardinal, still perched on the fan blade where he had been when we went to sleep.
We had things to do, places to go. Weather was changing. The temperature outside was dropping as a cold front moved in and rain was expected. We couldn’t leave the window open all day while we were gone. As much as we would have loved having our Cardinal in our house all the time, we knew we could not keep him as a pet. His world was outside. We had watched him from his fledgling days, watched him grow into a healthy, beautiful juvenile on the cusp of adulthood. His colors were striking. He was sleek and healthy and obviously could make his way on his own outside. Had he appeared to be injured or sick, that would have been a different matter. But he was a perfect specimen of a young Cardinal. Our obligation was to get him safely outside where he belonged.
But there was still the metaphysical element to our Cardinal’s persistence in staying near us inside our home. He had had numerous opportunities to fly out of the garage. Instead of following me from the garage and up the stairs to our bedroom, he had numerous other paths to take. Any other bird in any other situation such as this one would have darted here and there throughout the house, not found his way up the stairs and across the upstairs hallway to the one of three bedrooms that was ours. It was impossible to deny that every action our Cardinal had taken from the moment he first appeared in our garage while I was working there was intended on being around us.
In spite of this deep feeling of affection and wonder, in spite of the thrilling experience of how he seemed to connect with us and our departed son, we knew that the only correct thing for us to do was to catch him and set him free outdoors as the morning sun began to rise. I thought about the net I had tried to fashion in the garage the night before. Where it failed, I thought, was in the flimsy opening I had made out of thin baling wire. My eyes fell upon an old coat hanger, a wire one, in the closet. Perfect. I got the netting and found a shorter stick in the garage and made a much better, short handled net using the bent coat hanger and duct tape.
With this newly perfected net, it turned out to be not so hard. Or perhaps our Cardinal realized the time had come for him to leave. My new net resembled a wind sock. At first the Cardinal resisted efforts to coax him into the net. So I held the net still at the top of the curtain rods and we talked to him, talked to him as we would talk to a human being, and he hopped off the ceiling fan and fluttered over to the curtains and into the net he went.
Because of our earlier experience when I released him outside the window only to see him fly back in, we pushed the net outside the window as far as it would go and let the bottom of the netting where he was contained rest on the porch roof. By holding the top of the net up, I created a clear passageway out of the net. He hopped to the clothes hanger rim, cocked his head at us as if to say farewell, then popped up, fluttered his wings, and zoomed off into the bright sunlit morning into the trees across the lawn. Later that day, I saw him briefly fly across the lawn, looking every bit like a healthy, happy bird enjoying life. We have not seen him again, four days later, but keep looking. He is a very special Cardinal and the experience he provided us was as magnificent as it was inexplicable.
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