History & Culture / Opinion / Politics

Cardinal Lessons

cardinalShallow, trite, or disinteresting may be the way you think of nature’s lessons midwinter – when the world is cold and barren, snow high, spirits low, preoccupations mounding in drifts, health and safety concerns to keeping wild-eyed politicians out of our heads, since most of them are out of theirs.  But pause. Think on the bright red cardinal.  No kidding, he comes with lessons.

Cardinals are different.  They really are.  The reason you see them on Christmas cards and at your birdfeeder all winter, from Arizona north to Montana, Maine to Florida – is because they do not migrate.  They take a mate, make a home, cherish and protect it.  They nest early as February, sometimes raising two broods.  They have regular habits, abide their families.

Cardinals are different in other ways.  They consistently sing from high branches, often loudly, even on the worst days.  Think on it, not low branches, but in harmony with the whistling wind, not shy or demur, but proud of their voice, even when nature conspires to keep them quiet.

Moreover, cardinals are tenacious and communal, not bullies like Blue jays, not hammering indifferently like woodpeckers, not a drop of selfish squirrel in them.  They are gentlemen at the feeder, yet not to be unseated by shrill or chirping unworthy prattlers.  They know their mind, know their rights, assert both – but with respect for their flying village.

Note also, while loyal to place, mate, family, and feathered friends – including other cardinal pairs – they do not flock.  They are individuals.  They take the weather as it comes, provide for need, decide without speed, and stay the course – uninfluenced by the mob.  Like eagles, they fly alone and in pairs, nest the same way, and make no apologies for standing out.

As remarkable, cardinals refuse to be dependents, stand clear of work done by others.  They are self-reliant.  You cannot get a cardinal to use a birdhouse, no matter how well-built, outwardly inviting, or inwardly spacious.  They will have none of it.  They build their own nests, full stop.

Where do these conservative habits lead cardinals, how well serve them? Very, in a word.  Unlike other species of their shape and size, they will live 15 or more years.  They never seem to lose their singing disposition, closeness to home, flush color or favorite biome. How about that?

No wonder that, in biblical history, the cardinal stands out – figuratively and literally. Some readers hold the cardinal a symbol of eternal hope, enduring faith, resilience in life, brightness in dark, emblem of salvation’s promise, like Robert Browning’s lively lark.

Recall Browning’s epic stanza, from Pippa Passes? “The hillside’s dew-pearled, the lark’s on the wing, the snail’s on the thorn, God’s in His heaven – and All’s right with the world!” Is there not hope in such sentiments?  Of course, and the cardinal reminds us.

What else about this bird is strangely comforting, in these unsettled times?  While centuries of faithful have seen cardinals as a symbol of faith, hope and promise, others borrowed the word – to name the bird.

The root of “cardinal” is from Latin’s “cardo” or “hinge,” making “cardinal matters” those of great importance, or on which things “hinge.”  In time, church officials – in red robes – became cardinals, a visual related to the bird.  In any event, the bird and word, robes and ruby feathers are tied, adding another dimension to the cardinal at your feeders.

Maybe the point is this:  In times of layered complexity, worldly confusion, endless distraction and diffraction, disingenuous deflection, deception, and manmade misperception – there are still points of order, peace, and reassurance, signs of God’s mercy, hope, lift and gifts.

There are still moments when we get to see things as they are, goodness bright and true, singing from a high branch, no apologies or reserve, making our doubt pardonable – and one is the cardinal.  Some will say all this is trite.  I say, look for the cardinal.  He is still there.

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1 year ago

So, you’re a fellow bird-watcher, Robert! There are lots of reasons why the northern cardinal is the state bird in 7 states. They’re beautiful, and people love them!

They’re also adventurous, recognizing opportunities and finding new resources–populations are increasing farther north into Canada as long as food is available.

And did you know that yellow northern cardinals have been observed in the southeastern U.S. in the past few years?

Time to fill the feeder!

Last edited 1 year ago by Kim
1 year ago
Reply to  Kim

Thank you so much! Yes, and cardinals are regulars. With them half a dozen others, and I always find the feeder hard to keep full … at this snowy season. Thank you! Peace in the storm … and Onward!

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