Featured Image Credit: Tammy Knight
When I was child, my mother used to let me sit in her lap and watch the birds fly in our backyard. I scrambled up her legs and snuggled close against her as I watched the small birds glide across the sky. She listed off birds: sparrows, blue jays, robins. The warmth of her body and sun mingled together, creating a space of safety and happiness.
Once, when a vibrant red cardinal flashed by us and landed several feet in front of a tree, my mother leaned down and whispered in my ear, “If you see a cardinal, make a wish and blow a kiss.” And we pressed our palms against our lips and blew kisses.
Imagine the cardinal: Only 12 inches tall, the male is a vibrant red, while the female is a muted grey brown tipped off with dull reds. Often they are paired off for a breeding season, seen swarming the skies together. Their trademark mohawks are tufts of feathers that stick stiff as they become alert and fold down in ease. They have sharp, orange beaks great for plucking open their favorite sunflower seeds.
The Northern Cardinal isn’t much different than the Cardinal. You can only tell the difference between the adolescent and the females of the two birds. The Northern Cardinal’s beak is a few centimeters longer.
Birdwatching is a lot of nuisances. It requires patience, but also the skill to look at small details. You need to notice the lengths of beaks and tails, you need to count the number of bands on the bird’s chest. It is down to small little things that you never think about. It is sometimes almost impossible, especially for this novice to know the different subspecies of a bird. Is that a song sparrow or a house sparrow, I’m still not sure I can give you the differences.
The cardinal is a marveled bird: the state bird for Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, and West Virginia. It’s also my mother’s favorite bird. For years, I bought her small red cardinals in form of knick-knacks, socks, and kitchen towels. She sprinkles the backyard with birdseed and watches them.
One cool morning, my mom came in from outside and she held in her hands a small baby cardinal. I peered at it from each side at the brown body and looked at the tiny talons that scrunched together as if gripping onto a branch. She told me how our dog found it, holding it gently in her mouth, pieces of grass and slobber stuck to the feathers and how not far away the small nest laid on the ground.
I helped my mom create a home for the small cardinal, lining towels in an old birdcage we stored away in the shed. She placed the bird into the cage and we watched as it moved around. My mom added the small nest into the cage.
My mother, unaware that cardinals are low nesting birds, didn’t think that perhaps it might be quite easy to reintroduce the cardinal. We thought birds rejected their young when the scent of human covered them. We didn’t know it was a myth. We were clueless. We were without real internet, still with the dial up that no one had the patience for and we had to go off our own, misguided guts. My mom was set up raising the bird on her own. She named it Boogey and just like that a baby cardinal joined our growing family: two dogs, two cats, a snake, a parakeet and a Blue and Gold Macaw. What was one more animal in the mix?
Getting the cage set up was the easy part. It was far more difficult for my mom to feed the bird. She took a small eye dropper and mixed water with cat food. She sucked up the milky concoction and pressed slowly and softly small drops of food into the bird’s mouth. My mom would do this every day, every four hours, unless she was cleaning a house and she would instead race home and feed the bird. She rarely asked me for help. I don’t know if I showed a lack of interest or she feared I would make a mistake. My parents didn’t always trust me with the animals. There was the rabbit I owned at 10 years old, who, as I prepared a bowl of cereal for an afternoon snack, jumped off the dining room table. I heard the thud as I poured the milk over the cereal. The broken neck instantly killed it. My father yelled at me for being so careless as my mother wiped away my tears.
So maybe she worried I wouldn’t have the attention span or the patience or maybe she wanted to be the primary caretaker, but I remember watching her squeeze so softly and wished I could form the bond with the bird as my mother was.
One day, not long after we acclimated Boogey to our home, my mom woke up, preparing for work. She went to check on Boogey. She wiped the sleep out of her eyes, before she lifted the thin sheet off the cage. Below, she saw Boogey hopping around erratically. At first my mom didn’t notice, but it didn’t take long to see that Boogey’s leg was wrapped by a small twine from the nest. My mom reacted quickly. She carefully lifted Boogey into her hands, stabilizing its movements, and unwound the twine. However, the blood circulation was long gone and Boogey’s small talons fell off gradually. She looked like a pegged pirate. It didn’t stop her from getting around though. Boogey learned how to still maneuver around her cage. She perched herself to the top of the cage, clinging on only by one foot. There is a picture on my parents’ fridge. On top of a small wired bird cage perched two parakeets and Boogey. The faces, all small, face the camera. The two, small blue and white parakeets were contrasted against the reddish-brown cardinal. The parakeets gripped the metal bars with both their talons and Boogey, still the size of a baby cardinal, despite being a few years old, clung on with one foot and the pegged leg pressed against the blue bar.
It’s only now that I know that you can’t own a cardinal. As the state bird, there are certain regulations that prohibit the unlawful obtaining of the bird without a license. We didn’t have a license.
When I asked my mother if she knew it was illegal to own a cardinal, she blurted out “No!” When I asked why she kept the small bird, she talked about the desire to help. To mother.
My mother is a caretaker. She wants to care for those ones she loves. She dotes on me in ways that are natural as a mother and with Grace, her foster mother, my mom is diligent to meet her needs. She gets that from Grace. As a child, Grace often wouldn’t let me get up. If I wanted a milkshake, she would make it for in a heartbeat. My dad used to complain after my summer long visits with Grace. “That girl is spoiled,” he would mutter under his breath.
My mother naturally wants to help those that are helpless. My compassion for animals comes from both my parents, but my overwhelming need to help them comes from my mother. We are quick to help an ailing turtle, a small bird, and to my extreme, bugs. My mother felt the call to help Boogey, but I also think she was filling a hole. As if the impending growth and departure of her own daughter, already a teenager, compounded the loss of identity and perhaps a cardinal could help fill that void. She wouldn’t admit that to me and I’m sure when she reads this, she will shake her head and quickly text me to tell me I got it wrong. She just wanted to help the bird. Her daughter reads too much into things.
Boogey lived for about 5 years. The average cardinal lifespan in the wild is upward to 3 years. If they can escape predators, they can age up to 15 years. In captivity though, a cardinal’s average life is 28 years.
We didn’t know Boogey was sick until she died. My mom woke as normal and went downstairs to lift the sheet off the cage. She looked down at Boogey and as my mom describes it, Boogey looked back up and began to chirp a song. The whistles filled the room. My mom stood and listened until Boogey was finished. My mom blew a kiss to Boogey and left for work. When she returned, Boogey laid still at the bottom of the cage.
As I got older, when cardinals flew by, my mother would chime, “Make a wish and blow a kiss,” and I pulled up a wish before pressing my palm against my lips. The wishes varied and changed as I got older and feelings got more complex. If my parents were too hard on me, I begged for a better life. If I fell in love, I wished they would love me back. If I was happy, I asked for life kept blessing me. I sent cardinals all my worldly wishes.
I am not one to believe in superstition. As a child, I often scoffed at the idea of breaking a mirror, regardless of fault, meant I’d have seven years bad luck. In middle school, when friends told me that opening my umbrella would result in bad luck, I ensured them it wouldn’t. When they insisted, I grabbed my umbrella and pushed it open in the auditorium as we waited for classes. I laughed at their concern faces as I twirled the handle.
But there is something about good luck that I cling onto, the idea that a birthday wish or a cardinal could change my future is hopeful. I want to believe I can control the bad in my life, but hope for the good to be inspired by a string of superstitions. I’m nothing short of a hypocrite.
Recently I asked my mom about her cardinal wife’s tale. Who told you it? She tells me Grace used to say it. As a child, Grace would point out the different birds: robin, sparrow, blue jay and when she saw a vibrant red cardinal, followed by brown female, Grace would lean down to my mother and whisper: Make a wish and blow a kiss.
Brittney Knight is currently a MFA Nonfiction student at George Mason University, where she is in her third year, writing her thesis on motherhood and birds.