Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Cardinal Family Birthday & Leap of Faith

We love to sleep with the windows open whenever weather permits. Last summer, I awoke one morning to an unusual chirping sound coming from the rhododendron outside my bedroom window. Little did I know that one of the most amazing learning experiences of my life was about to begin...

A female cardinal was sitting upon a nest she'd made for her eggs, and her doting mate was making trips into the bush to feed his girl. I was immediately entranced, and I spent the next several weeks spying on this budding family.

I began reading about cardinals and learned that couples mate for life and stay together year round. Learn more about the Northern Cardinal with this BIRD GUIDE .

For two whole weeks, Mama cardinal sat on her eggs. She sang constantly, and whenever she called out, Papa cardinal would appear. He brought her food regularly, and he bounced from bush to tree all day long, chirping out information on what was happening in the yard so that he could keep the female safe. It was amazing!

And then it happened. The chicks hatched on the 11th day of my observation.

If only my photographs were better, but these were taken with a crummy camera, through our bedroom window and screen. I didn't want to disturb the miracle I was witnessing, so I tried to stay as quiet and non-invasive as possible. 
Mama cardinal tending to her newly hatched chicks.
The sounds outside the window were mind-boggling each day. When the chicks were hungry they would literally cry out for Mama. She tended to them with utmost care, and Papa was always lending a helping hand or keeping guard of his family. Phenomenal!
Three hungry chicks, all crying for Mama at the same time.
I was so surprised and emotionally moved to see Papa taking turns feeding his young as well. Mama needed a break from the nest from time to time (ain't THAT the truth?) so he would babysit the chicks and bring them worms.
Papa carrying a green worm for his kiddos
Dads can be spectacular babysitters! Instinctively, he seemed much more nervous and overprotective of the chicks, so he would sound the alarm by chirping loudly far more frequently than Mama would while in the nest. He must have had daughters in there. We can commiserate.
Daddy on Patrol
But, naturally, Mama spent the most time in the nest as the chicks matured. She spent every night sleeping in there with her young, no matter how crowded it was.
Mama on the lookout while the chicks nap
As the chicks grew stronger, their chirping became louder. They would, happily, wake me every morning, crying out whenever Mama went off looking for food.
Breakfast call!
But they were pleasantly appeased upon her return with sustenance. At this stage, their eyes still hadn't opened, so they must rely only on their little chirps to communicate with their environment. The chicks reminded me of human infants in their first few months of life, so helpless and dependent on their parents.
Mama feeding the babies
Here is a photograph of one of the chicks just before he started to open his eyes for the first time. So wild!
About to open eyes for the first time
Whenever rains came in, Mama would rush back to the nest and sit on top of her chicks to shelter them while Papa made protective rounds through the nearby bushes and trees.
Mama protects the chicks during a storm.
Once the storms would pass, Mama would take a break to go collect food while Papa took over at the nest for awhile.
And every night of the 10 while the chicks lived in the nest, Mama would return to sleep with her young. It warmed my heart to see her settled down out there by sunset without fail and reminded me of the cherished quiet hours my husband and I have after our daughters are in bed for the evening. Ahhhh...the quiet is spectacular sometimes.
Mama with her chicks at night.
Five days after hatching, the chicks began to show more strength. They'd pull themselves up and would move about the nest more frequently. There wasn't much room for Mama anymore.
Mama, feeding from above
And, as children do, the chicks became much more hungry and demanding.
Mama and Papa were working hard to sustain their young. In these amazing shots, I captured Mama inserting her beak into one of the chick's mouths to gently push food into its throat. Wow.
Mama, inserting food into her chick's mouth.

Astonishing to witness!
The chicks' feathers were coming in, about a week after hatching, so they began to look much more fuzzy and cute.
Mama observed as her chicks began to move around to the edges of the nest, exploring. She stayed closer as her young got braver, almost as if she was baby proofing her nest to prevent the chicks from falling. I guess there aren't baby gates for chicks yet, huh? Mama had to hop around the nest to act as a physical barrier. Poor Mama. She needed a vacation!

And then the day came when the chicks were ready to finally fledge and leave the nest. Sniff. Sniff. One at a time, I witnessed each chick cautiously hop out of its former home while both Mama and Papa looked on and coached with support.
The first chick is about to hop out of the nest.
After the first chick was out, the remaining two watched carefully as their parents instructed the boldest.
And then there were two...
Once her confidence was built up enough, the second chick pounced out into the world as well.
The last chick, about to leave the nest.
And then all three chicks, out of the nest already, began bounding about in that rhododendron bush while their proud parents stood nearby.
Mama, coaching on the far end of the bush.

Fledgling 1, looking right at me!
Now that my lil' friends were out of the nest, I managed to get some clearer photos of them from the other side of the rhododendron.
Fledgling 2, feeling brave.

Fledgling 3 was the most wary bird. She wasn't as bold as her siblings when it came to leaving the bush.
The Cardinal Family explored the nearby area for several days before I lost track of them, though they never returned to the nest. I have to admit that I was a bit sad to see them go, although watching them mature was one of the most fantastic natural wonders I have had the honor of witnessing.
Cardinals can live up to 15 years, and we still see mature couples at my feeders every day. Naturally, every time I see a pair, I wonder if one of them is one of the chicks I observed last summer. I secretly hope they are still living on our property.

Mostly, I can't help but compare the maturation of these chicks to that of my own daughters. As difficult as it must have been for Mama and Papa to prepare these babies for leaving the nest, their love, dedication and team work was completely evident and inspiring. 

I empathized with Mama and Papa on the day their chicks left the nest and imagined the day when our daughters will be off to college, exploring the world on their own, truly spreading their wings for the first time. The emotions must be overwhelming for Mama and Papa and the chicks alike, as I'm sure we will experience in our own family when that day arrives. 

But the world expands beyond that rhododendron bush...and it is a world well worth that leap of faith.

Every time I see a cardinal now, I am reminded of the love and devotion that exists within families, the bonds that are formed by selfless perseverance and patience and the awe-inspiring truth that we are all connected in this world. We just need to spread our wings...

XOXO From My Hearth to Yours

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GGG said...

You are fantastic

Unknown said...

I learned by watching only the BEST birds. ;)