The empty nest.

female cardinal 516next in the nandina 516male cardinal 516

Well, what you’re having is an intimate experience with birds. Most people don’t get to do that because usually you need binoculars – good ones – or even a telescope to see what the birds are up to. When they’re right there in front of you like that, they’re just fascinating, even the ordinary ones.

That’s what David said, or something close to it. The first part is verbatim: What you’re having is an intimate experience with birds. In addition to being an ornithologist, David is also a writer; his words are often memorable.

I had called on David, my radical conservationist, bird-watching friend, to ask about the nest of cardinals outside one of our kitchen windows, approximately four feet from where I was standing when I composed the email that began: While I’m certain I could scour the internet and find answers, I’d much rather hear from you….


Last Sunday Bernard said: Come look at this, which usually means something is terribly wrong with our house, like water seeping unexpectedly down an interior wall, or a widening crack between the wall and the chimney, or a trail of ants marching straight through one of the bathrooms. We live in a 110 year old house, which we bought from the daughter of the original owner. It is almost never good when Bernard says: Come look at this.

But this time, what he meant was: come look at something awesome.

He was standing at the window above our our kitchen’s ‘good oven,’ meaning the one manufactured in the 21st century and not the one in our vintage 1950s Magic Chef range that is the centerpiece of our kitchen. (We are odd people, and we know it. This news should not be surprising.)

The ‘good oven’ is tucked under a counter in the back of the kitchen, the part that once, 110 years ago, was built as a storage pantry. Over the counter there is a large window. Through the window there is a view of the neighbor’s house, which is approximately six feet away from ours (if that). In between our house and the neighbor’s there is a narrow walkway, bordered on the opposite side by a decaying cypress fence. On the other side of the decaying fence there is a large, overgrown nandina bush. In the branches of that bush, a little more than arm’s length from where Bernard and I stood, was a small, well-hidden bird’s nest.

A few days earlier, Bernard explained, he was standing at the window while waiting for his phone to charge. He was standing at this particular counter because the counter in the back of the kitchen is the crap counter, the place where things like phone chargers live, along with dishes that belong to other people (but haven’t been returned) and stray coins and forgotten grocery bags and the screwdriver that we used to replace the batteries in something or other, months ago, and then forgot to put away.  And while he was standing there, he noticed a male cardinal hanging around the nandina bush for longer than most birds typically stay in any one place. And then Bernard noticed the nest, hidden in the leaves.

I suspect he didn’t tell me immediately because he knew what would happen when he did; he knew I would make the bird’s nest a project. He knew that I would get out the step ladder and my real camera. He knew I would research and study and take notes and hover, that I would come home for lunch during the day to check in, that I would suddenly pay overzealous attention to something that had previously not in my radar sweep.

Where’s the mother? Are there two hatchlings or three or only one? Are there two males, or is that the same bird? Is that a grub worm or a caterpillar the male is bringing to the nest? Does the male always feed the young, or do they share? Will they return to this next every year?


I’m curious to learn more, even though I’m sure so pedestrian a bird as a cardinal is probably utterly uninteresting to an accomplished ornithologist: That’s what I wrote to David, in preface to my barrage of questions. He responded:

How high is the nest?  Good for taking photos? Once the young leave the nest (fledge), they will never return and you can feel free to do whatever you wish with the nest, bush, etc.  BTW, no native species is outside my interest.  Cardinals are great, and I know very little about them.  I’m sure I could learn a lot by watching the nest — something I’ve never had a convenient opportunity to do.

It was all the encouragement I needed to get out the step ladder and zoom lens and notebook, et cetera. I had a project; I love a project. I feel most like myself, the self who belongs only to me, when I’m neck-deep in a project.


Here’s what can be learned from scouring the internet:

Cardinals mate for life, provided that the male and female have identical life spans, which is apparently a rare occurrence. More accurately, cardinals, like many other birds, are generally monogamous as long as the two partners live. When one dies, the other finds a replacement and moves on.

They’re serial nesters, meaning they set up camp, hatch two or three young, and then start over in a new place, from scratch. By several accounts suburban development has actually been helpful to cardinal survival, since backyard shrubs make perfect cardinal nesting grounds.

According to Audubon, after the eggs hatch, the male cardinal will sometimes take over as primary feeder while the female starts building her next nest, which is probably why Bernard noticed the next in the first place, the showy red male bird being much easier to spot in a sea of green than the muted brown female. If I’d really been paying attention, I would have taken this information as fair warning.


I kept the camera by the window, knowing it would be almost impossible to get any decent pictures through the glass, but through the glass was the only practical option. I climbed on the counter to peer closer: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.

I noticed that they were never really far from the nest, and never for very long. Morning, mid-day, and evening there they were, both the male and the female, on the fence or in a branch or on the roof, though never close enough together to capture both in one frame.

I worried about neighborhood cats. I worried it would rain. I watched and worried; and in between watching and worrying, I studied. I called David both to thank him for providing the information by email and to apologize for ever having thought bird-watching a dull, uninteresting pursuit.


I think they split, Bernard said yesterday, when he caught me looking out the window at the nandina bush, green branches moving in the breeze, the nest dark and still, no bird of any species in sight.

Yes, I think so, I replied, and I reminded him what David had said, that they wouldn’t be back.

Bernard said: Yeah, I was looking at little dude the other day and his bulge-y eyes were looking right back at me, and I thought ‘little dude’s about to fly the coop.’ Guess they all did, huh?

And then he walked outside and pulled down the nest and put it on our front porch, next to the robin’s nest he found last spring. under the eave where the sparrows repeatedly set up shop, whether we want them to or not.

It’s good they like to be in our yard, he said; then he walked back inside to get a beer.


Here’s what can be learned from talking to a real live person, in this case, my friend David:

Well, as I said, what you’re having is an intimate experience with birds. Not everyone gets to have that, so enjoy it.

And we did.

Food | Week of May 9, 2016

Andean Cheese & Potato Soup | Green Salad

The Splendid Table Farmers’ Market Salad | Poached Chicken Breasts

Crunchy Veg Bowl with Warm Peanut Sauce

Ina Garten’s Beef Bourguignon (works in a slow cooker)

(we’ll have store-bought, but the link is to Mario Batali’s recipe, if you’re feeling all superstar chef and stuff)


  1. One of my favorite pastimes is bird watching. We have been keeping a journal of our purple martins for 8 years now. But, the last 2 years, we haven’t gotten any so we have been sad.


  2. We’ve got phoebes (as always) at the back of the house nesting above a gutter turn. And Carolina wrens in a (what I thought was only a decorative) house on a table on the front porch. As to the latter, I’m right there with you … worrying about the raccoons, the snakes, the myriad other things that often get them. But so far, so good! Hope you’re enjoying all your new endeavors.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve missed this, slowing down enough to watch the birds, or at the very least (and very best) slowing down enough to watch people who watch the birds. Thank you for this little bit of beauty.
    My husband’s grandmother (can you imagine being a grown person with a grandmother?! I have a forty-three-year old friend with three grandparents! I only had one grandparent until I was seven, and he was mean, but I digress…) anyway, my husband’s grandmother loved, loved to sit and watch the birds out her window. I met her and watched the birds with her, too. She passed away about ten years ago. So whenever we see a cardinal (a male one for some reason) we suppose that it is Grammy coming to visit. We saw one on Mother’s Day while we were playing this old-timey card game that the family had invented and named after her. How perfect is that?
    Perhaps you were visited by my husband’s grandmother, too.


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