OPENING my eyes, I sink down into the warm sheets, pull the comforter around me and ignore the clock. The sun is creeping RTC in my shuttered windows and, through the louvers, I can just detect a wren climbing into one of the faded white hollow beams of the pergola. She has built a nest there. A few twigs hang over the edge, giving away her cover.
I am not a bird person, but I find myself watching the comings and goings of birds with more than casual interest as I grow older. But I like birds at a distance, sitting high in the maple tree or perched at the very tip of the white pine, where a neighboring mockingbird likes to roost and serenade us.
I don't like birds paying insistent calls at my windows -- tap, tap, tapping like Poe's raven, driving me to distraction and causing me to consider building a scarecrow in my dining room.
Maybe today she won't come, I think. All is quiet. I call the dog onto the bed and let Samantha, the Siamese, curl around my head. Just a few more minutes and the day will begin.
Bang, bang, bang, the clumsy sounds echo through the silent house. Muffin, my black cat, leaps off the night table, her usual early morning post, and heads for the dining room. Bang . . . . bang . . . bang . . . bang. I get up and steal to the window, quietly opening the shutter.
She is there, sitting on the slats of the Adirondack chair. She cocks her head, listens, her orange neon beak glistening in the sun. She flicks her reddish brown wings and flies up at the clear glass of the dining room windows. Bang . . . bang . . . bang.
I move toward the hall, picking up a soft throw pillow from the chair. Opening the doors to the dining room, I watch in dismay as this female cardinal attacks my windows again and again. I walk into the room and she backs off some, gliding to the thin branch of the rhododendron, its soft purple flowers drifting lazily to the ground as she lights.
She seems to study me for a second, then, wham, she slams herself into the window. Only when I take the pillow and hit against the windows -- crying, "Go away, go away!" -- does she retreat into the high branches of a garden tree.
My home is under attack by an obviously neurotic female cardinal, and I am helpless to respond other than to scream and throw pillows. Are there psychiatrists for birds? Three weeks ago, a few days after this onslaught began, I called the Irvine Natural Science Center at St. Timothy's School in Stevenson. At that point my concern was for the bird.
"She is going to break her neck or tear a wing," I told the woman. "What can I do?" Nothing, really, I was told. Seems this behavior is not that uncommon in cardinals, but usually the male is attacking. He sees his reflection in the window and thinks a new bird is invading his territory. The battle will stop as suddenly as it started, I was assured. When? No way to tell.
So the battle goes -- bird against some supposed invader, me against invading bird. The first weeks were the hardest. She only came during the day. No one else in the family saw this tiny brownish general, leading the charge against the enemy, herself.
Finally, my son was home from college and saw her. Then my mother stopped by just as the bird was completing a major maneuver. Bang . . . bang . . . bang . . . Mother couldn't believe it.
I have tried to ignore this bird . . . Even the cats have given up crouching low and twitching their whiskers as she zooms in on her approach. I take my morning orange juice and head for my office, pulling back the curtains as I settle at the computer. She doesn't like my avoidance technique. Often I will be writing away when bang . . . bang . . . bang . . . she hits up against my office window. But she seems to tire of this more quickly than the dining room campaign. Thank God.
A week or so ago, her squire showed up. Decked out in his bright red uniform, he made no attempt to join the battle, but rather sat serenely, a bit removed from the fray. Was he giving her secret orders as he twittered away? Or was she the commander of the siege?
Whatever harmony these cardinals have established for themselves, they have decidedly disturbed my well-being. But after all, these are just birds, not some horrible plague or crippling disease. Let's keep this in perspective.
So I have passed through concern and controlled agitation, and now I have embraced resignation. And I now have reached the philosophical level of dealing with this unexpected intrusion into my daily life. I am going for the deeper meaning, some hidden truth that flutters about this cardinal as she flutters about my windows.
Perhaps this bird is a symbol -- showing me persistence and determination to press ahead with my writing. Perhaps she is the reincarnated spirit of a long, lost soul trying desperately to feel once again the warm comfort of a home filled with easy laughter and an embracing, if not perfect, love. Perhaps she is the devil, tempting me with her shrill behavior and demanding presence. Perhaps she is just a mixed-up, totally bonkers bird.
Is there a way to hold and comfort a cardinal? Could I catch her and try to calm her wildly beating bird heart? Might I tame her and teach her that imaginary invaders can be gently pushed back into darkness?
Bang . . . bang . . . bang . . . bang . . . She is back.
Is the bird crazy, or am I?
Beth Smith writes from Hunt Valley.