A cardinal taps into his self-image

The first time I heard and saw a brilliant red cardinal tapping on the window above an empty bird feeder years ago, I thought I beheld an avian genius through the glass.

"He's actually telling us to bring more seed!" I exclaimed. My friend, however, scoffed at the idea and said the bird had simply caught its own reflection and taken it for a rival male.

Sure enough, the cardinal thrust his beak not only at the window by the feeder (even after he'd eaten his fill), but also at others around the house. I'd see him perched in the sassafras tree outside the bedroom, eyeing the eastward-facing panes intently.

If I didn't enter the room and frighten him off, he'd swoop to the sill and begin a fierce, relentless tapping.

He never challenged the glass hard enough to hurt himself, but that possibility, and the irritating staccato noise, had me regularly shooing him away. I even hung temporary curtains to deter him. Eventually, he gave it up.

But the phenomenon repeated itself with other birds again and again over the years, and in seeking information I came across a whole body of folklore built around the notion of cardinal tapping as a bad omen for those within.

Horsefeathers. We are alive and well on the other side of the glass.

I'd accepted my friend's explanation - that the birds who accost our windows are not rapping to get our attention or to gain access. It really is all about territory, aggression, and bird-brained mistaken identity.

At least I thought so until just recently.

I'd pulled into the drive from a trip to town and braked by the defunct outhouse - which leans and sags more every year, a rustic memory of the 1930s, before indoor plumbing came to our street. It had been cleaned up and pressed into service several years ago, when we'd held an outdoor wedding at the farm. The guests had found the rural amenity charming with its fresh paint, wall hangings, wash basin - and little mounted mirror.

The familiar rhythmic tapping greeted me as I stepped from the car. It was close at hand, and, following it to the outhouse, I almost collided with a startled red blur exiting in a whoosh of wings.

There are no windows in the privy, but it is doorless now, and birds occasionally nest in an old boot nailed to the ceiling for that very purpose. Not in November, though - this cardinal, apparently, had had other business in there.

I leaned in to look around the dim interior and saw the little mirror hung for the wedding guests. A broom handle leaned against it, providing the perfect perch.

If you ask me, the whole business isn't about aggression at all. What we have here is a cardinal besotted with himself - a true narcissist. He must have come upon the most brilliant reflection of His Highness imaginable, one that rendered that dim window-glass image lackluster by comparison.

That particular bird hadn't tapped on the windows lately. If I'm right, he'll content himself with the mirror in the outhouse - a place he has emphatically claimed as his own.

And we can enjoy some peace and quiet in ours.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.