For the last several weeks I've been watching a pair of cardinals who have claimed my back yard as part of their territory. They have built a nest in the cascade of Concord grape vines staked ten feet in the air on a rusty post next to my patio. The nest is well hidden. It is only because I spend time out there, morning and evening, that I know it's there. I looked for it only after seeing both male and female fly to perches near the nest, hop to the top of the vines and dive in.
I suspect from the goings and comings of both birds that there are babies by now. A couple weeks ago the story was all about the female, pulling strips of bark off a branch on the fence and flying into the tangle of leaves to wind each strip into the vines to secure her nest. A few days later I found one broken egg in the grass, with purple-gray spots on the shell, just like the picture of a cardinal egg that I'd seen when I looked up cardinals on Wikipedia. Last week I saw mostly the bright red male flying across the yard, perching on the pole that holds the hanging baskets of marigolds. From there it was a short flight upward to the post that holds the vine. Silhouetted, you could see the food in his mouth. He'd dive in. There'd be a rustle and a flutter--the female taking the food--and off he'd go again. This morning it was both birds flying in and out--hauling in bits of seeds and whatever else it is baby cardinals eat. I suppose I should scatter sunflower seeds on my back steps--it's what my Aunt Clara would have done. But then you have the challenge of keeping the squirrels away. Clara would sputter at them, but it didn't help much.
I've just finished reading Mozart's Starling, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. It's a good read, with chapters on linguistics, music, natural philosophy, Mozart, Vienna and a pet starling named Carmen. It made me listen more carefully to the birds in my backyard. I can't say I know much more about what I hear than I did a week ago, but I have a new sense that birds are not only chirping--they're listening. I can pick out the cardinals better, not just their pretty territorial boasting, but also the male and female chip-chipping at each other, one in the lilac bush, one near the nest, just to stay in touch. A couple nights ago, a multi-sentence fuss went out from the under the grapevines when I pulled out my chair and settled my candle and notebook on the table. "She's there. She's there. Want to be sure you know—she's there. Careful."
Every now and then I get out of my aluminum chair, step closer and look up at the nest from underneath, ducking my head under the umbrella of vines and trying to pick out which patch of grey brown is the actual nest. I can see it, barely, but it's above my head, so I can't see into it. I'm curious, but I don't need to know. I'll mind my business so that they continue to mind theirs. They are that kind of neighbor. .
I'm sitting in the backyard as I write this. It's growing dark. Since it's July 2, there are fireworks popping in the distance and the noise of traffic a few blocks away. I just watched the female cardinal come and perch next to the vine. I heard a soft chipping sound coming from the nest. For a minute I thought it might be the babies. I stared and listened hard. Then--a flash of bright red--just the male taking his turn at bringing food to the family. He flew off and she went in next.
So much going on. So many sounds. Such peace.