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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

Marya of the Wood: The Joy of the Cardinal’s Song

Updated: May 17, 2022

Baby Cardinal, Outside My Window, Mj Pettengill
Baby Cardinal, Outside My Window, Mj Pettengill


When his spirit departed, I dashed outdoors to witness the world. I needed to know how it would or would not be. I stood on the hilltop and looked beyond the lake at the rolling pumpkin clouds. The imprint of the wind on the water rippled and swirled in an instant and then stopped abruptly, dissolving into ancient memory.

The night—patient and polite—had waited long enough. With tight-fisted buds, the trees waved in the diminishing wind one last time. Velvety shadows wrapped safely around the bluish-gray mountain range—a maiden’s silhouette.

It was more than tranquil. Everything sighed except for you as your song resonated urgently into the dusk. Despair and grief abandoned my heart as I caught sight of your brilliance from within quiet branches.

What fell upon my ears, so pure and infinite, was of truth, revealing secrets before merging with trees. Your lament was reassurance. I was gently, yet wholly, awakened by the saintliness of your song; it remains embedded in my heart. Your boldness—bright red feathers—captured my eye, leaving mourning to the doves.

Since then I have seen you when it is best to see you. There is no need to speak in my dreams; all words were spoken. The birdsong sustains infinite love.

For so many years, I kept an eye and ear out for the cardinal. It came in and out of my world. When I wasn’t looking, it showed itself when I may have needed help along the way. Or its song shattered the silence when I longed for him to know when I did good work, when I had somehow made it.

Mother Years later, when my mother’s spirit departed, the female cardinal showed up. It may have been that I wasn’t looking for it before. We often find what we seek.

Long before the death of my parents, I have been a bird enthusiast, beginning bird banding at age eleven, consistently providing several bird feeding stations. I participate in studies, bird watches, and have rescued abandoned baby birds, feeding them until releasing them into the wild.

Birth and Rebirth

I always wanted to attract cardinals to my feeders but only had occasional visits. I attributed it to the fact that I live deep in the woods. Often, they prefer suburban areas. For some time, I traveled to the Gulf of Mexico in the winter. I did see them there.

But here, back in the woods, I would only see them off and on in the spring with the other migrating birds. I learned to accept it. However, during the past few years, I have noticed them more. They have been frequenting the feeders and the grounds. I like to sprinkle food on the earth and in tree stumps, etc. so that they can forage, and it keeps the bears safe.

Late spring and into the summer, I noticed some activity in the lilac bush outside my office window. At first, it was a flickering of wings, but soon, I heard beautiful strains of the cardinal’s song. It was very close. When I went out to forage and work in the gardens, either the male or female cardinal would fly away from the lilac bush and perch on a nearby branch.

I enjoyed being serenaded by the cardinals. I quietly peeked out the window to catch sight of the female sitting on the small nest. This was an offering of great joy. I was both honored and humbled knowing that they were so close.

I started to become accustomed to various sounds that they made. I erroneously believed that the male was the one who did all of the singing. That isn’t the case. The female also has a beautiful repertoire.

Without being intrusive, I could watch both the male and female share the responsibility of feeding their young. I did not know how many there were. The chirping was a feeding call that I came to know.

One day while sitting at my desk, I saw the flapping of large wings and a shadow. I glanced out the window to see a broad-winged hawk on the branch, ready to attack. I know that many would scold me for intervening, but I acted instinctively. I rapped on the window, and the hawk flew off to a branch near my studio. I raced outside. Standing on the porch steps, I looked up at the hawk and said, “Leave the cardinals alone!”

We actually made eye contact before it turned and flew off. At that point, I didn’t know what to expect. There were several cardinals in surrounding trees sounding the alarm. I hoped that the babies were okay.

It took some time before either of the parents returned to the nest. Suddenly I felt responsible. I would be away from home and find my thoughts drifting to the cardinals, the hawk, the nest… I needed to let it go, and I did.

The chirping and singing resumed. I peeked out at the nest to see one baby bird with its mouth wide open during feeding time. Then one morning, when I looked out, it was right there staring back at me. It was shocking in a way. Maybe it wasn’t, but I choose to think that we connected. Within a few days, it was perched on the branch beside the nest, bringing back memories of when my own children prepared to leave, and I had nothing but trust to rely on. My job was done.

I wondered if it had enough strength to endure the journey of leaving home? Would it succeed outside of the nest? What if it fell?

The male seemed to be taking most of the responsibility of feeding the youngster. I learned that the female goes off to build a new nest.

I wasn’t getting my work done. I needed to trust that the birds would find their place in the world. Soon, the baby was gone. I dismissed thoughts of the hawk or other predators. I continued to put food out in the community for them (and others) to forage and went about my business.

The chirping was no longer in the lilac bush but in the thicket at the edge of the raspberries. Now, I was looking out the kitchen window to spot the male. I wondered, where is your baby? Although we intersect, we reside in two worlds, and I had to trust them and my deep and intuitive self. All is as it should be.

A few times, it seems as if I have spotted a small bird flying to and from the branches, accompanying the male. The feeding time chirps draw me to the window. I have decided that it is the youngster practicing his flight skills. I am ever so grateful for this experience. I will always honor it.

Abstract Cardinal. CC0
Abstract Cardinal, CC0


Aug 25, 2021

I was blessed to have many cardinals at my feeding stations when I lived in North Woodstock. I got to witness their babies as well! It an incredible experience this thing called nature. The depth of the beauty can never be captured in words or photos. Only the experience itself...that which we can hold in our hearts.

Mj Pettengill
Mj Pettengill
Aug 25, 2021
Replying to

So beautifully expressed, Jane. Thank you.

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