A male cardinal showed up one spring morning and tried out the bird feeder. He had not eaten long before he left and came back with his mate. He started eating while she sat on the side simply watching, but then he picked up another seed and hopped over to her, gently placing it in her mouth. She ate and afterward continued to eat, the two of them side by side, enjoying a free and easy meal that she now knew was safe.
A few weeks later I noticed that her figure was spreading. Her round breast was more than round. Too much bird seed, I wondered? But no, all of a sudden one morning she was thinner again, and she and her mate came separately instead of together. In fact, she came much less often, and he did a whole lot of back and forth commuting.
Then they showed up with four other cardinals, young ones nearly full-grown, but thinner and with a scruffy plumage, even more muted than Mom’s. One female would only sit on the edge of the feeder and quiver her wings so fast they seemed but a blur, leaning forward with her mouth open. Daddy often fed her, one seed at a time, until she was full and flew away. After a week of that, Mom had had enough. How was this one ever going to learn to feed herself? So she often flew at the young one, nearly knocking her off the feeder. Daddy got the message and stopped the “spoon feeding.” Sometimes Daddy’s little girl tries it again, but Daddy makes her get her own now. What will she do when he is gone if she never has taken care of herself before?
In the evenings the whole family comes to the feeder together. The young ones fly at one another playfully before settling down to eat. Mom and Dad used to eat last, but more often now they jump right in with the “little ones,” some of whom are bigger than their parents. The plumage on the males is starting to redden, and, what is more important, they come to eat even when their parents don’t. They have learned to shell the seeds, and the flying debris often pings against the windows and out into the azaleas. They have also learned to fend for themselves against the other birds, and when the big bad squirrel comes, they will either gang up on him, or if one is alone, that bird knows it is much better to simply run.
The cardinals have done well. Did you know that those birds are monogamous for life? And they have taught their children well. They know how to take care of themselves. They know when to fight and when to run. They know where to come when they need nourishment, because mama and daddy brought them from the time they were able to fly there behind them. If something ever happens to those parents, I know the young ones will still be visiting me every day. And soon, they will bring their own.
By the way, this lesson is not for the birds.
Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, telling to the generation to come the praises of Jehovah, and his strength, and his wondrous works that he has done. For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children; that the generation to come might know them, even the children that should be born; who should arise and tell them to their children, Psalm 78:1-6.