Date: 12/29/20 5:52 am
From: Robert Ross <plumisl...>
Subject: [MASSBIRD] Frozen with Fear
*Frozen with Fear*

It’s a ritual. Every morning, rise, brew a cup of tea, and sit to watch the
feeders. The mealworm feeder is filled every night, the suet feeder is kept
packed, the three hangers—sunflower, Nyjer seed, and safflower—are cleaned
and filled weekly. Over forty species have appeared in or over the

This morning, though, there is only one bird on a feeder. It is a female
Cardinal. She is perched on the side of the feeder. She is as still as a
Cardinal in a Glen Loates painting.

The branches around the yard, where Mourning Doves, Crows, Starlings,
Grackles, and Grosbeaks often perch, are empty. The large flock of finches,
Gold, House, and Purple are nowhere to be found. The joyful morning chorus
of excited chirps and squeaks is silent. Not a creature is stirring, not
even a Titmouse.

A pair of Cardinals have been in the yard all year. Male and female feed
regularly. They are the yard’s alarm system, hitting their high, sharp,
staccato chirps whenever anyone or anything enters the yard. It is, in
their precise world view, their yard.

The Robins, House and Carolina Wrens, and a pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers
would vociferously disagree. The lone Starling which magically morphs into
twenty before the very eye, the sparrows who bully beyond their standing,
and boisterous Blue Jays make their case yet the Cardinals do not flinch.

The Cardinal has not moved an inch. Not a feather. Perhaps she has caught
her claw, wing, or beak in the feeder. Last night brought the first frost,
the grass is glazed with a slight layer of sugar. It was not cold enough to
freeze any healthy bird to death.

Twenty minutes later, the paper is read, the tea is drained. Out the
kitchen window framing the feeders, the Cardinal is surprisingly still
there. She has not stirred.

Curiosity wins out. Opening the backdoor, accompanied by two rambunctious
hounds bounding out with glee, the dogs dart right below her. She does not
move. The dogs spring off to sniff out the night’s invaders. The bird on
the feeder appears dead on its perch.

A clap of the hands and the Cardinal bursts to life, springs up, and darts
off, diving down into the bushes and vines lining the yard fence. A
grey-blue blur, darts by, descending at speed, its wings so close they
woosh as a sharp wind blast hits the face. As it passes, its dive does not
veer, its red eye looks only ahead.

Cooper’s Hawk!

The Cardinal flees into the bramble. The scraggly maze engulfs her. The
striker flaps but once and is right on her tail. Both disappear into the
bush and nary a single branch or vine moves. Predator and prey are
swallowed up without a trace, as a rising trout takes a mayfly and then
both are gone.

Maybe 30 seconds goes by; maybe less. The Hawk rises out of the bush like a
diving cormorant reappears with a trout in its maw. It makes no sound. It
perches on the fence post, its beak, though, is empty; its claws grasp only
the fence. Its head cocked, its flaming eyes burn into the bush, dissecting
the vines. The red eyes search for the slightest stir with a predator’s
single focus. The hunt is not over yet.

It seems only fair to the unwittingly exposed Cardinal to end it. Walking
towards the hawk, the dogs get there first and it flies off toward the tall
pines down the road. The dogs watch it go as the high shrill of its
scolding echoes.

There is no sign of the Cardinal. She is not below the bushes. There is no
red or lighter brown among the grey, dormant branches and swirling vines.
She does not fly out. She has vanished.

Perhaps she will return at the mid-day feeding. She does not. It is several
mornings before she is seen again at the sunflower feeder. There is no
obvious sign of trauma and if she recalls, she does not let on.

A White-breasted Nuthatch feeds with her, chattering Chickadees come and go
seemingly too quickly to claim a prize, the Bluebirds gobble and joust over
the mealworms, and a Red-breasted Nuthatch shares the suet feeder with a

All is back to normal at least until the Cooper’s hunts again.

© Robert Ross, 12/20

Robert Ross

Byfield, MA


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