Listen for the call of the cardinal

The observation of birds may be a superstition, a tradition, an art, a science, a pleasure, a hobby, or a bore. This depends entirely on the nature of the observer.

-- James Fisher, British ornithologist

At least once a week, my friends and I hike the trail above Carson City toward Hobart Lake. We climb as far as we can, turning back in the summer when the dogs get too hot, in the winter when the snow is too high to mush through.

Ursula watches for black bears, Michelle scans the rocks for the mountain lion that slinks around up there, Suzanne identifies animal tracks and offers mini-lectures on the flora, and I keep an eye out for the big buck that threatened us with his antlers last year.

This week, we checked on the progress of the busy beehive in a huge pine, identified an Echo Blue butterfly, commented on new claw marks scratched into tree trunks near the timberline, and, as always, stood for a quiet moment admiring the clear view south all the way through the Carson Valley and beyond.

Spring and early summer are my favorite times of year to hike because of the birds - mating pairs of raucous Stellar's jays, small mountain bluebirds, and flashy western tanagers. This week we spotted a new one - a white-headed woodpecker dressed in formal black and white.

I got hooked on bird watching as a child in northwestern Pennsylvania. Our neighborhood sat in a thick patch of Pennsylvania woods, a glorious cacophony of birches, dogwoods, mulberry, pine, and maples, with blackberry and elderberry bushes to keep us in berries all summer long, and just enough poison ivy to keep us kids on our toes.

And the birds, of course: robins and thrushes, owls, black-capped chickadees and wild canaries, and my favorite, the cardinal-grosbeak, with its brilliant crimson plumage and unmistakable call.

One summer my sisters and I found a cardinal with a bent leg and bruised wing flopping around under the hedge. He was striking: all red, even his legs and feet, with a handsome black mask and dashing coral-colored bill.

We fashioned a habitat in a shoebox - sandy soil, some twigs and leaves, a bottle cap for water, custom air holes. The cardinal watched for us through the holes and whistled when we were out of sight. We learned his peculiar whistle, and whistled back. He recovered, although his leg remained bent, a handy way to identify him, as it turned out.

When we set him free, he didn't go far. He found a mate and serenaded her as she wove a deep cup of bark, grass, and string in our cherry tree. They raised their family - four babies - in our backyard that summer.

The next spring, I prayed for the cardinal's return. I set out his favorite foods: black sunflower seeds, millet, raisins, bits of walnuts, crumbled cornbread. At the crack of dawn, for what seemed like weeks, I poked my head outside in the cold morning air to whistle, listening hard, my breath rising in little puffs.

Finally! A flash of scarlet and that unmistakable call: Whoit! Whoit! Tsu! Tsu! Tsu! Our cardinal was back! He and his mate raised another family in the cherry tree, and his babies returned for several years after he was gone.

When we moved to Nevada, I figured that backyard bird watching wouldn't be much different here. So I hung birdfeeders and thistle bags, scattered sunflower seeds, and watched out my kitchen window to inventory the visitors.

I was fascinated by the Nevada assortment: wrens, chickadees, starlings, robins, juncoes, waxwings, scrub jays, flickers, magpies, and of course, quail. My backyard was busy with birds, and I felt like a girl again.

I wasn't prepared, however, for the prairie falcon. Every morning, dependable as death, it sat on the fence, waiting, still. Then it dropped, graceful and ruthless, to snatch a bird in midair as it flew to a feeder. It carried its kill to a pine tree, where, beneath the protective cover of branches, it fed.

Pennsylvania suddenly seemed so civilized compared to our Nevada back yard at the edge of the high desert.

I wrestled with the dilemma for several days. If I were watchful, I reasoned, I could chase the falcon away every morning. If the falcon dropped an injured bird, I would nurse it back to health, like we had done as kids.

Then I remembered the birds my sisters and I couldn't save - the robins injured beyond help, the bluebirds lying stiff in the grass after the cat had tired of them - and the bird funerals and rows of Popsicle stick crosses.

So I took down the bird feeders. Magpies and scrub jays still fight over territory in the back yard, robins dig for earthworms, and flickers continue to peck away at the siding; quail build nests beneath the junipers, and migrating birds still spend a few days in our trees, but falcons don't make morning rounds here anymore. I watch them through my binoculars as they hunt in the desert where they belong.

As is the way of things, last week the neighborhood kids found an injured scrub jay, a young one who doesn't seem to be afraid. We built a cozy habitat in a shoebox, and he's starting to take food from our fingers. When he's better, we'll set him free.

Maybe he'll find a mate and build a nest in one of our pine trees. Maybe he'll come home again next spring.

Marilee Swirczek has lived in Carson City for 27 years. She can still muster up a convincing cardinal call.


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