In my internal dialogue yesterday, I was primarily engaged with my parents. Both of them were really smart although unfortunately, somewhat underdeveloped because of their difficult, challenging childhoods which impeded what could have been have been richer lives. Despite those issues, each of them uttered truisms I’ve remembered, pondered and considered when I was about to make a move in my life. And I’ve made plenty of moves. Yesterday I could hear my mom saying, “ no one can hurt you as much as you can hurt yourself. Remember that.” I did, mom. And then there was dad. He’d look at me and say, “stop chasing around, you little weasel. Make a plan. Know what you’re doing. You always need one. If it doesn’t work, make another.” Yep. I remember that too. Of course, I heard my own voice too, warning me as I have many times that every commitment, every love is a risk that can be emotionally expensive. No one knows that better than me. I’ve paid many times for making those choices. But I also know you don’t get the goodies without taking chances.
I’ve always been an outdoorsy person. I’m physically active. I feel terrible after sitting around for too long. When the pandemic hit last year, I went for long walks and started daily dance parties with headphones jammed in my ears. As soon as the temperature allowed, I set up residence in my backyard where I spent hours each day, kicking in my kiddie pool, gardening and observing the antics of all the wildlife that visited my little universe. Except for having a kiddie pool for myself, none of this is new. From my earliest childhood years, I was always checking out insects and animals, the trees, the plants, the dirt and the sky. I always had my favorites like the white tussock moth caterpillar. And what midwesterner doesn’t love the brilliant red cardinal?
All the way back to the late ‘70’s, we had nesting cardinals and robins in our yard. Hard to miss because of their remarkable color, especially in winter, with their stark contrast to the white snow, they were just part of the landscape. In the years of working full-time and raising a family, I always noticed them but in that glancing way we all have when we’re busy. Besides, for many years we had two dogs and a couple of cockatiels whose time with us totaled almost thirty years. The kids too had their own pets, a series of guinea pigs, hamsters and parakeets. Life was busy. Every now and then I snapped a photo of a butterfly, bee or bird while documenting my garden, doing my best Thomas Jefferson imitation of recording my relationship with the dirt and its endless possibilities.
I met Carmine, up close and personal, late in 2019, when he decided to have a good look at me by landing on my car windshield. He wasn’t named back then. I saw he and his female partner all the time. They frequented my bird feeders and appeared to be living in my massive upright yews that ran along my back fence. They also hopped around the repurposed climbing structure that Michael had built for our kids which I’d turned into a giant planter for potted plants and climbing flowers, to attract more pollinators and hummingbirds. As I focused my attention toward the outdoors, this cardinal pair increasingly attracted my attention. Their behavior was interesting and in a very short time, I realized that I could distinguish their voices from the bird cacophony that often blares in the backyard. My elderly rescue dog Violet wasn’t much of a companion. Having spent the bulk of her life traveling around as a crated show dog, I’d struggled to establish rapport with her, each moment of eye contact a small victory. My last cockatiel, Daisy had died after a long life. But these cardinals…
I started looking at the female more carefully. Her color was unusual. They were too far away for observation. I decided to order additional bird feeders which I could place closer to my house. I got one which attached to the front door and another which I hung from a shepherd’s hook two feet from my back steps. The cardinals were swift to discover the new food sources. The female, although not as brilliantly colored as the male, was exceptionally beautiful. She was leucistic, commonly defined as having reduced pigmentation, resulting in whitish spots on otherwise solidly colored areas. I was immediately entranced. I named the female Pumpkin and the male Carmine. I also knew I was making a terrible mistake. Counting on wild animals for personal joy is just plain stupid. They are exposed to daily challenges. I’ve had raptors in my yard, surveying the possibilities for their lunches, afternoon snacks and dinners. And the damnable cats. Both the collared ones, who are obviously let loose by owners either unaware or uninterested in the fact that felines are responsible for the deaths of millions of birds in a year, or all the strays I’ve found ambling up my driveway. I knew that by investing myself emotionally in the vulnerable was a big mistake. But although I thought all the rational thoughts and considered everything, I was already a goner. I loved Pumpkin and Carmine.
I saw them mate on top of the backyard plant structure. A later, I heard frantic distress calls and ran to my front yard to see a cat lurking under my neighbor’s shrubs where a weak fledgling was ensconced. I chased the cat away and watched in horror as the baby tried to reach its screeching parents and face-planted itself on the sidewalk. I stood over it until somehow it mustered the strength to loft itself into the sheltering bush where its parents perched anxiously. Later, I watched Pumpkin feed the fledgling that had grown bigger than her. You just can’t get more familial than that.
For slightly under two years, Pumpkin and Carmine became part of my daily life. I observed so many interesting behaviors, how they alternated with each other between the bird feeders and the baths, zoomed in and out of their protected bushes and were frequently within inches of each other. I saw them bicker with interlopers of their own species. Carmine is definitely an alpha male who makes himself bigger than his actual size. Both showed extreme alertness. Once when a hawk landed on my fence I saw Carmine make a quick dive for a nearby bush, removing himself as a target from the raptor.
Last year I was terrified when Pumpkin appeared with all of her tail feathers gone. I read that a cardinal can lose them all as a stress response to who knows what? Thankfully, they all grew back. But let me stop writing to show some of the beauty of these two, particularly the unique Pumpkin.
The last time I saw Pumpkin was June 29th. She and Carmine had each used the bird bath, dried off on the fence and hung out together for a minute or so. Then she took flight.
I noticed her absence right away. Carmine was appearing regularly. I hoped that she was attending to nesting duties but after checking for her morning, afternoon and evening for over two weeks, I’ve reluctantly accepted the fact that she’s dead. I’ll never know what happened to her. Although mated for life, I guess Carmine has already moved on as it is his job to reproduce. He showed up at the feeder with a young female the other day. I’m trying to not hate her.
This morning he was singing beautifully in the backyard.
This afternoon, he was eating at the front feeder.
I am the one who is bereft, as I knew I would be from the beginning of this ill-fated attachment. But I’m not sorry. I won’t forget how these two birds helped me navigate isolation. Everything has a price. I’m paying mine. I’ll always recognize Carmine and his voice. Maybe I won’t get attached to his new partner. It’s hard to say. But I’ll never stop missing beautiful Pumpkin. A girl a bit off the beaten path who wasn’t quite like everyone else. I never figured I could love a wild bird so much. Perhaps I’ll sit down and write the children’s book many of my friends urged me to produce for all the kids out there. We’ll see. In the meantime, I remembered a time when my forlorn son played a Bob Marley and the Wailers tune, “My Woman is Gone,” so many times I thought my head would explode. After that time passed, he composed a lot of his own amusing lyrics to that song. So I mimicked him and wrote a little lament for Pumpkin to that tune. If you know it, sing along.
My Pumpkin is gone, My Pumpkin is gone, My Pumpkin is gone, My Pumpkin is gone.
She flew off one day,
Two weeks ago, give or take a few,
I never dreamed that so soon, without her I would have to do.
My life won’t be the same,
She made me so happy
Now what passed for my joy feels pretty lame.
I will just have to deal.
Oh Pumpkin, you were the best,
So much better
Better than all the rest.
My Pumpkin is gone, Repeat refrain..