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Triumph, Tragedy, and Recovery: A Cardinal Story

May 2019

Spring was in full bloom in southcentral Texas. We were settling into our new house – a retirement cottage in Cibolo, a small town northeast of San Antonio and south of Austin, where hill country begins. Our home stood in front of a primitive green belt with lush trees, and behind them, a babbling brook. Shortly after arriving, we were pleased to discover that a pair of cardinals had also established their love nest in the nascent American elm tree that the builder’s gardeners planted in our backyard.

We noticed it by chance. It seemed to have been constructed overnight and was festooned with white stripes made from bits of discarded plastic bags blown by the wind into the brush along the unfinished walking trail behind our house. The female cardinal had meticulously gathered, cut with her sharp red beak, and wrapped the plastic strips around her nest to fortify it.

We were tempted almost every day to peek into the nest whenever the mother left to stretch her wings or hunt for and consume seeds for sustenance. There were three small, off-white, brown speckled eggs deep in the hollow of her nest. Suddenly, the mother returned to our airspace. When she spotted us, she lighted on the side fence and began chirping loudly at us – warning us to get away from her nest. We instantly complied and retreated to our patio nearby.

The next day, she and we did the same things. This time, when she returned to the yard, she brought along her mate – a larger, bright-red male cardinal with a prominent crested head, black-masked face, and a bright yellow beak. He perched on a tree behind our back fence and the female retook her familiar spot on the side fence. She chirped at us; he remained stone silent. Both spied us intently. We smiled and slowly walked backward to our patio again and sat down.

Within a few days, we began to hear soft cries coming from the nest. We noticed that the mother cardinal left her nest more often now and took longer to return. When we peeked inside the nest, two tiny heads on giraffe-like necks craned upward, mouths wide open. They expected us to feed them. Thankfully, after we stepped back, the mother returned, her mouth full of food for her chicks. We observed this ritual over and over for several days. Whenever the mother was tired, the father would take turns feeding the chicks.

We felt like godparents and in a sense, protectors of the whole cardinal family. One of the three eggs never opened. The two viable chicks, though, continued to grow and demand more and more food and work to find it from their mother. In a little more than a week, the pair of chicks was off, and the nest was abandoned.

Like the Bible verse, “Cast but a glance at riches and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky….” (Proverbs 23:5)

As the summer unfolded and the temperature soared to over 100 degrees every day, we occasionally saw the cardinal family playing around our fence and in the trees behind our house. They never revisited their “maternity ward” though – the elm tree – until ….

April 2021.

We were nearly two years into our cottage home in the country. Although we had both been fully vaccinated, the nation and the world were still in the throes of the Coronavirus pandemic. Spanish Flu, 1918, redux. Humankind had suffered over 150 million cases, with over 3 million deaths, 560,000 of those souls lost were from the United States. Still, many of our numbers were still refusing to take the lifesaving Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, kids under age sixteen could not yet receive vaccinations, and too many people refused to respect the social compact and “mask up.”

Temperatures over the past few months had been topsy-turvy. A heavy snowstorm pummeled Texas in mid-February, leaving many dead or injured – on highways or freezing to death in their homes after electricity was lost. Cold temperatures and heavy floods ensued, then gradually modulated toward normalcy.

We recovered, as, somehow, God always lifts us up to do. “If I protect every feather on a sparrow’s head, won’t I also protect you from harm?” (adapted from Luke 12:7)

By the third week of April 2021, our cardinals were back, rebuilding the same-style nest in the same elm tree centered in our backyard. The female and male worked jointly to hurriedly construct their new home. It sported the same plastic strips reinforcement as the previous one.

The mother laid her eggs deep in the center of the new nest, which was more conical-shaped than the last one had been. We wondered why the change in design? We would soon find out.

The mother looked so proud, perched on the metal tree brace that held the trunk straight. This would be the only photograph we would get to take this time around.

The morning after, we glanced out into the backyard from our bedroom. Something felt wrong. Through an opening in the Venetian blind, we could see a four-foot-long indigo blue snake slithering across the grass. We rushed out the patio door, opened the shed, and retrieved a long-handled spade shovel.

The snake moved toward the elm tree and began to shimmy up it. Instinctively, we grabbed the garden hose, opened the water full-blast, and squirted the snake in its face and open mouth. It raised its head and neck like a cobra and began to lunge at us. Focus, focus…the closer it got, the harder the stream of water struck its face. Suddenly, it turned away, and we followed in pursuit. We chased it along the full length of our fence. We did not allow it to escape under the right side fence, because a little girl and her dog inhabited that space. We redirected the snake out the back fence, and it did not return.

“Whew,” we thought. “We didn’t have to kill the snake. It left under pressure on its own.”

Then we remembered the cardinal nest. There was no sound coming from inside it. No mother cardinal’s head or crest is visible on top of her eggs.

We were too late. The snake had already consumed the tiny eggs. The mother cardinal obviously fought the serpent off valiantly, as evidenced by more than a few of her beige feathers strewn around the straw threads of the remnants of her nest. Tragedy had struck, for all of us. We all lost something precious, our young cardinals.

We didn’t know whether the mother cardinal had been killed battling the snake, or whether she survived. We prayed for the latter outcome. Cardinals, we discovered, shared so many of the very best attributes of humans – monogamous, territorial, and highly protective of their families. Males are as active in caring for their young as females.

A few days later, we were sitting on our patio having our every-Sunday homemade muffins and watching morning television. Suddenly, there they were – the female cardinal flying in our yard and her mate perched high on a tree in the near forest. She flew around our ceiling light fixture and chirped, letting us know that she was safe – just what we had prayed for.

Ron Scott is a retired Army Major. He served twenty years on active duty, first as a surgical technician with a Marine detachment aboard the U.S.S. Holland in Rota, Spain during the Vietnam War, then in the Army as a physical therapist, and later, a JAG Corps criminal defense attorney. His wife of 48 years, María Josefa Scott-Barba Garcés, was born in El Puerto de Santa María, Spain, across the bay from Cádiz, near the pristine Donaña Nature Park. Ron is currently a university professor, teaching ethics and jurisprudence to graduate students from around the globe. He has authored 14 textbooks addressing health care ethicolegal issues, medical Spanish, and careers in health care. Privileges and Immunities: Tale of A Military Trial is his first novel (2021).

María is retired, after a 20-year career as an early childhood educator. Her first book – a cookbook written during the pandemic – is titled Inside Pepi’s Kitchen, An Andalusian Treasure. My Favorite Recipes (2021).

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