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Cardinal Rules

I spotted this guy in my backyard this week. I glanced out the back door as I was walking through the kitchen, and I could see him clear across the lawn even though it was cloudy and just before twilight. It’s hard to miss that red in the sea of gray and evergreen at the back fence. It was like he was screaming at me; his presence was so vibrant. But, he wasn’t shouting. He was perfectly silent, and his only movements were those slight fluffing of feathers and jittery turns of the neck birds do.

His color was so bright that I wanted to get a picture. I grabbed my camera, slowly opened the back door and eased out onto the back steps. I took my zoom lens as far as it would go to capture him, which probably accounts for the slight blur in the photo. When I realized I couldn’t focus as well as I wanted to, I decided to try to get a little closer. Sure enough, as soon as I made a move down the steps toward the patio, he’d had enough. Off he flew, and the moment was gone.

I’m tempted to say this bird is a sign of Spring, but he’s not. He’s actually a sign of Winter. The cardinals have been spent the entire Winter with us like they do every year. I suppose Starkville, MS offers just the right blend of mild Winter weather to make it a good “snowbird” locale for the red birds. This one’s plump physique is an advertisement for the luxury accomodations available in our particular yard with the berries, the evergreen trees, the vinca groundcover and the tall bird feeder we try to protect from overzealous (and very acrobatic) squirrels. The only drawbacks in our bird paradise are the rowdy boys that sometimes populate the backyard as well. Still, we usually have two or three cardinal families– brilliant red males and duller brown females–that hang around throughout the year, and we’ll probably get to watch them teach their babies to fly this Spring.

It’s an odd phenomenon–how much more I seem to notice the cardinals during Winter, even this time of year, than later in Spring or Summer when they are more prolific. I suppose it’s the sheer contrast of their color and movement against the seeming monotony and stillness of the Winter landscape. As Spring gains prominence, their bright red becomes just one component of a rainbow of other saturated colors–greens, reds, yellows, blue skies. Their flight gets lost in the cacophony of other activities going on outdoors. It’s interesting how much more easily we recognize things when they are sparse, how much more significant to us they become when we aren’t saturated. When we feel deprived of something, we tend to recognize its value more poignantly. Its presence gains power, perhaps because scarcity tends to focus our attention

It’s Saturday, and I’m usually totally immersed in a flood of laundry and housework and catching up. But, I’ve been thinking about this little cardinal all week. His vibrance. His stunning addition to our backyard in that one moment. His power to capture my attention so completely. I hope I can live by the “cardinal” rules today, recognizing and giving attention to those things and people that matter to me, even on the days when their presence is crowded by so many daily occurences. I don’t want to notice them only when I’m lonely for their prominence.

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