This time of the year, I write a column urging everyone to feed the birds and offering tips on attracting the birds you love most. But this year I want to talk about Long John Cardinal and what he taught me.
In case you have not heard my true story about Long John, let me concisely tell it again.
One morning I was watching my birds and noticed a cardinal having a hard time hanging on to the feeder. I got my binoculars and saw that he just had one leg.
I went out and put a line of black-oil sunflower seeds all along the top of my fence, and I fed him every day for five years. When I had to be out of town, I got my dear friend and neighbor, policewoman Janice Crumley, to feed him. The average cardinal life span is eight years, so I had Long John for most of his life.
Sometimes you can save an animal, and sometimes you can't. One day when a reporter was here writing a story about my birds, a female house finch flew up and lit on my finger. I looked at it closely and saw she had an eye infection that was literally dissolving her eyeball. I sat her on a feeder and she ate, but I realized I could not save her. When you've saved as many dogs, cats and birds as I have, it hurts to see one you cannot save.
Long John was one of the most beautiful chapters of my life and one of my great learning experiences. He taught me that taking care of something beautiful awakens something beautiful deep inside. In other words, Long John did something for me as great as I was doing for him.
The quality of our lives is proportionate to how many people and things we have to love and share life with. I shared the life of my cardinal friend every day for five years. Take my word for it, if you faithfully feed your birds, you are going to have some beautiful experiences.
I realized, too, that by keeping him alive I was keeping many other baby birds alive. The first year, he came in with two broods of his babies, and by winter time he had few feathers left. He was completely worn out and used up. It was very hard for him to feed all his babies. I had to counsel him about curbing his sex drive.
He also taught me about cross-species communication. At first, he was distant like most cardinals. But then he would come in as soon as I went out and sit there chirping while I was lining up his food. He'd chirp to me in a different tone -- more warm and friendly. He had absolutely no fear of me.
Often I would say to him, "Long John, when you die, don't go off somewhere and make me worry about what has happened to you. Die right here on my patio, and I'll give you a good Christian burial."
One morning I went out and there he was, dead at the bottom of the fence where I fed him.
You may not believe it but we communicated on some level. Maybe I should hire out as a cardinal interpreter.
E-mail Dalton Roberts at DownhomeP@aol.com