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 ….