The observation of birds may be a superstition, a tradition, an art, a science, a pleasure, a hobby, or a bore. This depends entirely on the nature of the observer.
— James Fisher, British ornithologist
I got hooked on bird watching as a child in northwestern Pennsylvania. Our neighborhood was surrounded by woods full of birds: robins, thrushes, owls, chickadees, wild canaries, and my favorite — the cardinal-grosbeak.
One summer, I found a cardinal with a bent leg flopping around under the hedge. He was all crimson, even his legs and feet, with a black mask and dashing coral-colored bill.
I fashioned a shoebox habitat — sandy soil, twigs, leaves, a bottle cap for water, custom air holes. The cardinal watched through the air holes and whistled when I was out of sight. I learned his peculiar call and whistled back. He recovered, though his leg remained bent, a handy way to identify him, as it turned out.
When I set him free, he stayed. He found a mate and serenaded her as she wove a cup of bark, grass, and string in our cherry tree. They raised four babies in our backyard that summer.
The next spring, I prayed for the cardinal’s return. I set out his favorite foods: sunflower seeds, millet, raisins, bits of walnuts, crumbled cornbread. At dawn for what seemed like weeks, I poked my head outside and whistled, listening hard, my breath rising in puffs.
Finally! A flash of scarlet and that unmistakable call: “Whoit! Tsu! Tsu!” The cardinal returned with his mate and raised another family; his babies and grandbabies came back to the same tree for years after he was gone.
When I moved to Nevada, I hung bird feeders and thistle bags, scattered sunflower seeds, and watched out my kitchen window, fascinated by the Nevada assortment: wrens, chickadees, hummingbirds, starlings, robins, juncos, waxwings, scrub jays, flickers, magpies, quail.
I wasn’t prepared for the prairie falcon. Every morning, dependable as death, it sat on the fence, waiting. Then it dropped, graceful and ruthless, to snatch a bird in midair as it flew to a feeder. It carried its kill to a pine tree and fed.
Pennsylvania seemed so civilized compared with the high desert.
I wrestled with the dilemma. If I were watchful, I reasoned, I could chase the falcon away every morning. If it dropped an injured bird, I would nurse it back to health.
Then I remembered the birds I couldn’t save — robins injured beyond help, bluebirds stiff in the grass after the cat had tired of them — and the bird funerals and Popsicle stick crosses.
So I took down the bird feeders. The falcon resumed hunting in the desert where it belonged.
That was a long time ago. This spring I hung birdfeeders and thistle socks, filled bird baths with water, scattered yarn and string for nest-building. Two scrub jays — with a violent dislike for robins and mourning doves — already claimed the backyard. A red-tailed hawk is hanging around, but I don’t mind. I want my grandsons, 2 and 4 years old, to learn to love watching birds.
I told them the cardinal’s story and demonstrated his distinctive whistle. Maybe we’ll find an injured bird this summer and build a cozy shoebox habitat. Maybe it will find a mate and raise a family in our backyard. And maybe it will come home again next spring.
Marilee Swirczek is professor emeritus at Western Nevada College and lives in Carson City.