The Brave Cardinal
by James Witmer, illustrated by Zach Franzen
In a big spruce tree in a big old garden behind a big old house lived a bold red cardinal and his beautiful buff-colored wife. Mr. Cardinal was happy as could be, and very proud of the nest-full of eggs Mrs. Cardinal was sitting on.
For a while, he perched in the top of the spruce tree and sang to his wife: “Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty!”
Then he fluttered down to the bush beside his tree, and shouted his call to the world: “Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!”
It was a pleasant thing to shout, but Mr. Cardinal was doing more than greeting the sunshine and his neighbors. He was pleasantly telling all the other birds that he lived in the spruce tree, that he was hearty and strong (which is how he could sing so loudly), and that they should keep their distance from his tree and bushes. Mrs. Cardinal was not to be disturbed.
After some time, Mr. Cardinal felt he had done a very good job protecting his home. He was ready to fly up and sing to his wife some more when he saw something disturbing.
In the side of the big old house was a big, dark, shiny, square hole. And, if he looked into the hole, Mr. Cardinal could see the bright red coat of another cardinal!
Now all cardinals like the same kinds of food, and they like all the same nesting spots, and the same puddles for bathing, so they don’t make good neighbors for each other. Things get far too crowded! And Mr. Cardinal thought it very rude for another cardinal to be messing around in a bush so close to where he was singing.
He flew closer to the house, for a better look into the shiny hole – and the other cardinal came closer too! So Mr. Cardinal threw back his head and gave a very loud call, to warn the other fellow off, “Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!”
But at the very same time, the cardinal in the hole flicked his tail and threw back his head to call.
Mr. Cardinal was annoyed, but he didn’t want to give up too easily on his good mood. Perhaps this new fellow hadn’t realized that he was a bold, bright cardinal with a family in the spruce tree. Well, then, Mr. Cardinal would just have to show him.
Mr. Cardinal flew very near to the house, perched in the branches of a young dogwood tree, and glared sternly into the shiny square hole. But that saucy new cardinal swooped brashly into his own young tree, fluttered his red wings in a very show-off way, and stared rudely back at him.
Now Mr. Cardinal was completely upset. The feathers of his crest stood up tall, and he hopped from one foot to the other, so angry he could only call, “CHIP! CHIP!” And the new cardinal, proud and selfish, became angry too, so they hopped and glared and “CHIP”-ed at each other until poor Mr. Cardinal could hardly think straight.
At last he knew there was only one thing to do. Mr. Cardinal would have to drive the intruder away!
He left his tree in a brilliant rush of red, flying straight toward the saucy cardinal in the hole. But the intruder was not taken by surprise. He rushed from his tree, looking so fearsome and wrathful that Mr. Cardinal pulled up short in astonishment.
After a moment of surprised fluttering, Mr. Cardinal swooped back to the bush and turned his back to the stranger. Now he knew for certain that the new bird was dangerous, and he must be made to leave. But Mr. Cardinal’s confidence had been shaken. How magnificent the other bird had looked, rushing toward him! He took several long minutes to gather his courage.
Then, with a mighty effort of wings and will, he flew again toward the hole in the house, and the saucy red bird – who was flying toward him! Mr. Cardinal did not stop. His enemy did not stop. And they met with a mighty WHUMP! right at edge of the hole.
The world went dark and fuzzy for a while after that. For a moment, Mr. Cardinal seemed to hear human voices, very close, making noises he could not understand:
“Why did he hit the window?”
“He saw his reflection, and thought he was fighting another bird.”
“Oh, no! The poor, brave thing!”
Then he heard nothing again for a while. When he woke at last, he found himself resting gently in a pocket of spruce branches, facing the big old house. And the hole in the house was gone! Instead of the dark, shiny square with its green trees and dangerous new cardinal, there was a blank, white space (and a little girl peeking out through the curtains, but Mr. Cardinal didn’t see her).
Mr. Cardinal blinked once or twice. Then, slowly, he realized: He had done it! He had chased away the saucy intruder AND his shiny hole, too!
This happy thought swelled Mr. Cardinal with so much pride and joy that he hardly noticed the ache in his head. In a blur of sparkling red, he flew to the very top of his spruce tree, and sang, and sang, and sang.
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If you enjoyed this story, please see Mr. Witmer’s previous tales from the Big Old Garden, behind the Big Old House.