A Cardinal’s Mothering Instinct

short stories

Doug Alt


(The reading of this story should be preceded by the reading of a prior story, “Cardinals as Parents”)

A Cardinal’s Mothering Instinct

Good mothering can manifest itself in various ways.

One day, a mother cardinal showed up in our yard with just one youngster in tow for a food-finding lesson. Something appeared amiss however, and closer observance revealed that the baby in tow was not a cardinal at all, rather, it was a sparrow!

Now, how a mother cardinal had come to raise a baby sparrow is a mystery that we never did figure out, although all kinds of speculations come to mind.

Regardless of how this match-up had occurred, the female cardinal painstakingly went through the food-finding lesson sequence with the young bird who was, very obviously, not her own child.  There were no other baby cardinals to be seen during the whole process. Nor, was there a male adult cardinal to share the parenting duties. Just one cardinal Mom and one adopted young sparrow.

This particular female cardinal took her juvenile charge through the standard food-finding lessons… up to a point. It appeared that she would finally give in to the baby’s “Feed me, feed me” cries day after day and never progress to the “tough love” part of turning her shoulder and walking or flying away to jolt the youngster into looking around and figuring out that plenty of food was there on the ground, just for the taking. In fact, three or four weeks later, she was still showing up in our yard with junior in tow and placing seeds in his mouth in response to the endless “Feed me, feed me” squawking.

Carolyn and I started to discuss theories of what was causing the weaning process to be dragged out to three or four times the normal time span. Was she an otherwise-childless female who was spoiling the one baby that had somehow come into her life? Was she never going to cut the apron strings?

When I mentioned this whole scenario to my sister Toni, who is also an avid bird watcher, she responded with a very plausible explanation: it may be that the trigger, hard-wired into the cardinal parents’ brains, that sets off the “tough love” sequence may be dependent on the physical size of the young bird. Once the new chick grows to a certain size, the information in the parents’ genes dictates that it is time to get junior out of the nest to learn how to fend for her-/himself.

With this cardinal/sparrow situation, it might just be that the young sparrow, being a smaller bird in general than a cardinal, was not growing to the size that would trigger the mother cardinal’s “tough love” sequence.

We assume that everything eventually worked out alright, as we no longer saw the cardinal/sparrow duo appearing in our yard after about a month of the extended food-finding lessons.


A few months later, in the Fall of that year, a related event occurred.

Before getting to it, however, I have to go back to about thirty years prior to discuss bird calls – cardinals in particular.

When my first wife, Ute, and I were newly married, we rented a house in Clark, NJ that had lots of birds around. We got into the practice of putting out bird seed to attract them to the house. We even got into attempting to imitate some of the bird calls, eventually having fairly good success with some of the cardinal calls. It got to the point where we could whistle like a cardinal while putting out the seeds and they would respond with a whistle and then fly down for a meal.

One spring day, we had most of the windows open while we ambitiously worked at “spring house cleaning”. One of us was upstairs, the other downstairs, busily dusting, vacuuming, etc. At some point I decided to do a cardinal whistle out a window near me to see if any were in the neighborhood. A cardinal responded, and I expected to see it fly to the feeder momentarily. However, the cardinal did not appear at the feeder as expected.

I tried whistling again. The cardinal responded, but again, did not fly down to the feeder.  After a few more tries, still no cardinal appeared, so I abandoned my bird calling, albeit with a bit of consternation as to why the cardinal might be hesitant this particular time about coming down into our yard.

A little while later, during a coffee/snack break, I mentioned my consternation to Ute, who broke out laughing.  She said, “I was wondering the very same thing… I was whistling out the window by me and the cardinal would respond, but wouldn’t show up either…”

Well, we had become good enough cardinal callers to, at least, attract each other!


Fast-forward a few decades to Wanamassa, NJ, where my current wife, Carolyn, and I have been observing and enjoying our feathered friends in our back yard, to the October following the Cardinal/Sparrow mothering sequence described above.

As I was walking out of the front door of the house one morning to get in the car and drive to work, I heard a cardinal calling from someplace in one of the trees behind our house. Since I was very familiar with various cardinal calls, this particular call caught my attention – it sounded as if the bird was sick with a sore throat, or maybe even dying and making some kind of last-gasp call. I put my briefcase down and walked to the back of the house to see what the situation was with this cardinal, thinking it might be injured or might be in need of some kind of assistance.

It took a while to locate the cardinal, even though it was perched on a tree limb fairly low and close to the house. I had looked right past it several times without noticing it; not because it was hidden behind some leaves or anything, but, because it wasn’t a cardinal at all – it was a sparrow! And, it was completely healthy!

After a few moments of amazement, it dawned on me: the Mother Cardinal had indeed managed to successfully raise and wean the Baby Sparrow earlier that year. Not only that, but, since the baby sparrow had been raised with the cardinal language since infancy, the newly-matured sparrow was now doing an almost-passable job of speaking “cardinal”, even though it was obvious that his physical sound-producing apparatus was not designed to make cardinal sounds accurately

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