I have a stalker.
Over the past few summers, since becoming a Person More Cognizant of Birds, I’ve noticed male cardinals noticing me when I walk through my yard. One year, a red fellow would run back and forth along tree branches as I strode underneath them to and from my mailbox. Another summer, one would angrily chip any time I stepped out onto my back stoop. Every year, I ambivalently assume it’s a different male and accept that it could even be a different male every time I peek outside. I’m not taking notes on any subtle plumage variations that could indicate differences between individuals. But I only ever see one male at a time out there, so they all clump together into one collective yard cardinal. A yardinal, if you will.
On a particularly pleasant mid-day this summer, my yardinal watched as I left my front porch and began to walk down my sloping lawn to my parked car. It scooted along the branches of my big maple, then landed on the custom-made suspended platform feeder that was lovingly crafted by a fellow avian enthusiast and local friend.
Even in a hurry to leave, I still took a moment to glance toward the feeder. And made eye contact with the bird. This was a mistake.
Tsk huhh, tsk huhh, the yardinal said softly. I had never once heard this sound before, from a cardinal or any other creature, but I was sure it was directed at me. A combination of human projection and past observations of birds feeding each other suggested that this bird wanted seeds.
“I have to go to work,” I told him. Out loud, because I have always been a feral person and became very used to being out of other humans’ earshot during the pandemic.
Tsk huhh, tsk huhh.
“I’m not supposed to!” Being that birds faced their own pandemic in some states this summer, and because my street overlooks a tree-covered ridge packed with caterpillars and other protein sources that time of year, I had curtailed my feeding practices.
Tsk huhh. Insistent.
He’d correctly taken me for a sucker and availed himself of my compassionate nature. Again, there could have been some projection at play.
“Fine. Okay.” I unlocked my door, tramped back inside to my bag of black-oil sunflower seeds, and put out a pile on the feeder, still up but mostly abandoned from disuse. There was only enough to last the afternoon, if that.
The yardinal waited until I was all of three feet away before flying down and tucking in, making tiny whispered crunches as his bill masticated morsels. He won the day.
There were a few additional instances of putting out a bit of food solely for my yardinal in the following weeks, but none with himself’s unique added commentary. Once or thrice, I stood in my yard with my palm held flat, a small pile of seeds positioned at the center, staring at this red bird with warmth and intent. The first time, the yardinal made his way to a close branch, puffed up his chest, preened, and seemed to think about making a move to my hand. But he never left his perch. The other times, he simply watched from among the leaves as this fool in slippers waited to be amused by a moment of hand-feeding woodland magic.
Later in the summer, I peeked out the window from my work-at-home desk to see the yardinal escorting a bumbling red-and-tan juvenile around the yard. They awkwardly hopped about the posts supporting the netting around my sister’s palette garden boxes, tumbled over to a stand of volunteer locust trees, then wound up on the suspended feeder. The youth was persistently begging, not unlike the yardinal that might have been its father had acted toward me some weeks earlier. Only a bit cuter. And junior’s pleas were also rewarded, this time with morsels distributed by a bright orange beak instead of a fleshy primate hand.
In early fall, when the Ohio Department of Natural Resources announced that it was once again safe to return to bird feeding, I heard from my desk a few loud, familiar chips. I looked to my left and saw my yardinal in my stick-on winder feeder, helping himself to the bounty. Welcome back. We made it.