Dec. 5, 2022•
9 min read
When I was a little girl, I asked my dad for a cardinal. A slick, vibrant, tufted-feathered red bird to sing to me whenever I wanted. We were birdwatching on our favorite nature trail, and a cardinal had just landed on a thin tree branch near us, bobbing up and down while he sang. My dad looked down into my big hazel eyes—his eyes—with that look that all dads get when they know they’re going to disappoint their daughters.
Softly he said, “It would kill a cardinal to put it in a cage.”
I sighed, mostly because I knew he was right. Instead, he passed me his binoculars and let me gaze at that beautiful bird until it flew away.
I’ve been seeing cardinals way more than I normally do. These crimson birds happen to be my favorite, so naturally they’re allusive. I may see one on occasion while hiking or at my bird feeder but nowhere close to daily … until now.
There are two pairs of cardinals that live in the trees outside my office. I can see them fluttering around, picking up sticks for nests and snacking on berries and insects. On any given day, I can hear their distinct two-parted whistle and slow trill through the glass of my windows. A woman in the downstairs office complains that one of the male cardinals attacks her office window. I’d gladly switch with her.
Now, every hike I take, I stumble upon a curious cardinal looking at me from the treetops. He usually tilts his head to the side then calls down to me. I wish I could call back, but I’ve never been able to whistle. I see cardinals in the pine trees by my boyfriend’s house and catch a glimpse of them at my bird feeder, irritating the house finches. Am I being stalked?
I should be clear; I love seeing all birds—a trait I’ve inherited from both my parents. Their idea of fun was birdwatching in Horicon Marsh or on the Ice Age Trail when my sister and I were kids. They even brought us to a birdwatching convention where my dad proudly bestowed upon me a “Junior Birder” t-shirt. I wore it even after it was too small for me.
My parents also gave me an old bird watching book. It had a tattered blue cover with bird illustrations and was decorated with pen marks from disobedient children (myself and my sister) and the dog-eared pages of the birds I thought were prettiest. I still have it tucked into my bookshelf. It’s one of the last tokens I have that remind me of my dad, along with his binoculars and his worn, broken-in flannel shirt. I take them out and look at them from time to time, hardly believing that it’s been 12 years since he last used them. This July, it’s been 12 years since I lost my dad.
There’s a classic saying—“When cardinals are here, angels are near”—and it annoys me. I’m not religious, and I’m not here to tell anyone what to believe, but, my dad’s passing triggered me to lose my faith in any higher power. The number of people who told me that my dad dying unexpectedly was part of “God’s plan” or that “he’s in a better place now” at his funeral left a sour taste in my mouth. Really? A better place now? As if being with his friends and family was so bad? He wasn’t suffering, and he wasn’t ill.
Maybe the cardinals that sing to me now are my dad trying to send a message, but I don’t think of him as an angel. I’m not saying he was a bad person. Quite the opposite. But he was a rulebreaker, authority hater, and all-around rapscallion. The outdoors were his cathedral. The rows of evergreens were his church pews while the birds preached their sermon. To think that he’s trapped in heaven with people and not drifting with the wind among the trees is heartbreaking.
I believe life on Earth is heaven, or at least it could be if we tried to see it that way. While I don’t believe in heaven— please don’t tell my grandma—I do believe that there is something out there connecting us all, a more universal power. Nothing solidified that belief more than what I discovered while writing this piece.
During my research, while I was looking for a way to prove that cardinals are more than just Christian symbols, I stumbled upon this interesting tidbit of information.
Some Native American traditions associate cardinals with the number 12—or at least some white people on the internet claim they do. Legend has it that seeing a cardinal means that you will have good luck within the next 12 hours or perhaps 12 days. Or at noon or midnight. Right, so when I first learned that, though tears were streaming down my face, I felt an overwhelming sense of comfort. It was short-lived, however. I just don’t know if this “legend” is true. I’ve reached out to several sources but haven’t received a response to back up these claims.
The first source I came across was from a man named Garth. He’s a birding enthusiast, photographer, and writes articles about all sorts of birds. I reached out to see where he got the information from but have yet to hear back from him. The second source came from a white woman named Beverly Two Feathers. Her bio says she went on a spiritual pilgrimage and received the name Two Feathers. While that is wonderful and all, there’s an author's note about how Beverly abandoned the website, so I can’t get ahold of her. Without solid proof cardinals are associated with the number 12, I felt slightly disconnected from my dad and almost lied to. The same way I felt when all of those people told me my dad was in a better place in the receiving line at his funeral.
Unfounded internet sources did not completely extinguish my spark of hope and comfort. What I do know for a fact is that cardinals are non-migratory, so you can see them 12 months out of the year. They typically lay eggs three times a year and lay four eggs at a time, resulting in about 12 offspring per year, give or take. Their incubation period is about 12 days. And yes, many of us associate cardinals with winter, when they grace Christmas cards and holiday décor during the month of December, the 12th month of the year.
I don’t have proof that cardinals are actually associated with the number 12. Just like I no longer have my dad’s voice in my ear, telling me to relax as I stand in the batter’s box, trying to hit a baseball. I no longer hear his voice drop low when singing “Across The Universe” by the Beatles. And he will never know everything I’ve accomplished since I was 16 years old.
But what I do have now is that little red bird’s song. Every day I listen to those cheerful birds sing. And it could be my dad trying to tell me he loves me, or it could just be a bird. Either way, that two-part trill reminds me of him, and of the things we did together while he was still alive. All the nature walks and canoe trips. Teaching me to parallel park and hoping I wouldn’t have to be tested on it. Letting me stay up late to watch tv with him when my mom was out of town. And teaching me to appreciate the Earth and the time we have on it.
That bird song brings me more comfort than any prayer ever could. And though one day, I may not hear that bird song as often as I do now, I’ll still be able to flip through the pages of the tattered birdwatching book to the cardinal, which just so happens to be on page 112.
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About the author
Monica is a writer, editor, weekend warrior, and professional concert goer.