The Song of the Cardinal
IN LOVING TRIBUTE TO THE MEMORY OF MY FATHER
"For him every work of God manifested a new and heretofore
1. "Good cheer! Good cheer!" exulted the Cardinal
2. "Wet year! Wet year!" prophesied the Cardinal
3. "Come here! Come here!" entreated the Cardinal
4. "So dear! So dear!" crooned the Cardinal
5. "See here! See here!" demanded the Cardinal
"Good cheer! Good cheer!" exulted the Cardinal
He darted through the orange orchard searching for slugs for his
breakfast, and between whiles he rocked on the branches and rang over
his message of encouragement to men. The song of the Cardinal was
overflowing with joy, for this was his holiday, his playtime. The
southern world was filled with brilliant sunshine, gaudy flowers, an
abundance of fruit, myriads of insects, and never a thing to do except
to bathe, feast, and be happy. No wonder his song was a prophecy of
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good cheer for the future, for happiness made up the whole of his past.
The Cardinal was only a yearling, yet his crest flared high, his beard
was crisp and black, and he was a very prodigy in size and colouring.
Fathers of his family that had accomplished many migrations appeared
small beside him, and coats that had been shed season after season
seemed dull compared with his. It was as if a pulsing heart of flame
passed by when he came winging through the orchard.
Last season the Cardinal had pipped his shell, away to the north, in
that paradise of the birds, the Limberlost. There thousands of acres
of black marsh-muck stretch under summers' sun and winters' snows.
There are darksome pools of murky water, bits of swale, and high
morass. Giants of the forest reach skyward, or, coated with velvet
slime, lie decaying in sun-flecked pools, while the underbrush is
The swamp resembles a big dining-table for the birds. Wild grape-vines
clamber to the tops of the highest trees, spreading umbrella-wise over
the branches, and their festooned floating trailers wave as silken
fringe in the play of the wind. The birds loll in the shade, peel
bark, gather dried curlers for nest material, and feast on the pungent
fruit. They chatter in swarms over the wild-cherry trees, and overload
their crops with red haws, wild plums, papaws, blackberries and
mandrake. The alders around the edge draw flocks in search of berries,
and the marsh grasses and weeds are weighted with seed hunters. The
muck is alive with worms; and the whole swamp ablaze with flowers,
whose colours and perfumes attract myriads of insects and butterflies.
Wild creepers flaunt their red and gold from the treetops, and the
bumblebees and humming-birds make common cause in rifling the
honey-laden trumpets. The air around the wild-plum and redhaw trees is
vibrant with the beating wings of millions of wild bees, and the
bee-birds feast to gluttony. The fetid odours of the swamp draw
insects in swarms, and fly-catchers tumble and twist in air in pursuit
Every hollow tree homes its colony of bats. Snakes sun on the bushes.
The water folk leave trails of shining ripples in their wake as they
cross the lagoons. Turtles waddle clumsily from the logs. Frogs take
graceful leaps from pool to pool. Everything native to that section of
the country-underground, creeping, or a-wing - can be found in the
Limberlost; but above all the birds.
Dainty green warblers nest in its tree-tops, and red-eyed vireos choose
a location below. It is the home of bell-birds, finches, and thrushes.
There are flocks of blackbirds, grackles, and crows. Jays and catbirds
quarrel constantly, and marsh-wrens keep up never-ending chatter.
Orioles swing their pendent purses from the branches, and with the
tanagers picnic on mulberries and insects. In the evening, night-hawks
dart on silent wing; whippoorwills set up a plaintive cry that they
continue far into the night; and owls revel in moonlight and rich
hunting. At dawn, robins wake the echoes of each new day with the
admonition, "Cheer up! Cheer up!" and a little later big black vultures
go wheeling through cloudland or hang there, like frozen splashes,
searching the Limberlost and the surrounding country for food. The
boom of the bittern resounds all day, and above it the rasping scream
of the blue heron, as he strikes terror to the hearts of frogdom; while
the occasional cries of a lost loon, strayed from its flock in northern
migration, fill the swamp with sounds of wailing.
Flashing through the tree-tops of the Limberlost there are birds whose
colour is more brilliant than that of the gaudiest flower lifting its
face to light and air. The lilies of the mire are not so white as the
white herons that fish among them. The ripest spray of goldenrod is
not so highly coloured as the burnished gold on the breast of the
oriole that rocks on it. The jays are bluer than the calamus bed they
wrangle above with throaty chatter. The finches are a finer purple
than the ironwort. For every clump of foxfire flaming in the
Limberlost, there is a cardinal glowing redder on a bush above it.
These may not be more numerous than other birds, but their brilliant
colouring and the fearless disposition make them seem so.
The Cardinal was hatched in a thicket of sweetbrier and blackberry.
His father was a tough old widower of many experiences and variable
temper. He was the biggest, most aggressive redbird in the Limberlost,
and easily reigned king of his kind. Catbirds, king-birds, and shrikes
gave him a wide berth, and not even the ever-quarrelsome jays plucked
up enough courage to antagonize him. A few days after his latest
bereavement, he saw a fine, plump young female; and she so filled his
eye that he gave her no rest until she permitted his caresses, and
carried the first twig to the wild rose. She was very proud to mate
with the king of the Limberlost; and if deep in her heart she felt
transient fears of her lordly master, she gave no sign, for she was a
bird of goodly proportion and fine feather herself.
She chose her location with the eye of an artist, and the judgment of a
nest builder of more experience. It would be difficult for snakes and
squirrels to penetrate that briery thicket. The white berry blossoms
scarcely had ceased to attract a swarm of insects before the sweets of
the roses recalled them; by the time they had faded, luscious big
berries ripened within reach and drew food hunters. She built with far
more than ordinary care. It was a beautiful nest, not nearly so
carelessly made as those of her kindred all through the swamp. There
was a distinct attempt at a cup shape, and it really was neatly lined
with dried blades of sweet marsh grass. But it was in the laying of
her first egg that the queen cardinal forever distinguished herself.
She was a fine healthy bird, full of love and happiness over her first
venture in nest-building, and she so far surpassed herself on that
occasion she had difficulty in convincing any one that she was
responsible for the result.
Indeed, she was compelled to lift beak and wing against her mate in
defense of this egg, for it was so unusually large that he could not be
persuaded short of force that some sneak of the feathered tribe had not
slipped in and deposited it in her absence. The king felt sure there
was something wrong with the egg, and wanted to roll it from the nest;
but the queen knew her own, and stoutly battled for its protection.
She further increased their prospects by laying three others. After
that the king made up his mind that she was a most remarkable bird, and
went away pleasure-seeking; but the queen settled to brooding, a
picture of joyous faith and contentment.
Through all the long days, when the heat became intense, and the king
was none too thoughtful of her appetite or comfort, she nestled those
four eggs against her breast and patiently waited. The big egg was her
treasure. She gave it constant care. Many times in a day she turned
it; and always against her breast there was the individual pressure
that distinguished it from the others. It was the first to hatch, of
course, and the queen felt that she had enough if all the others failed
her; for this egg pipped with a resounding pip, and before the silky
down was really dry on the big terracotta body, the young Cardinal
arose and lustily demanded food.
The king came to see him and at once acknowledged subjugation. He was
the father of many promising cardinals, yet he never had seen one like
this. He set the Limberlost echoes rolling with his jubilant
rejoicing. He unceasingly hunted for the ripest berries and seed. He
stuffed that baby from morning until night, and never came with food
that he did not find him standing a-top the others calling for more.
The queen was just as proud of him and quite as foolish in her
idolatry, but she kept tally and gave the remainder every other worm in
turn. They were unusually fine babies, but what chance has merely a
fine baby in a family that possesses a prodigy? The Cardinal was as
large as any two of the other nestlings, and so red the very down on
him seemed tinged with crimson; his skin and even his feet were red.
He was the first to climb to the edge of the nest and the first to hop
on a limb. He surprised his parents by finding a slug, and winged his
first flight to such a distance that his adoring mother almost went
into spasms lest his strength might fail, and he would fall into the
swamp and become the victim of a hungry old turtle. He returned
safely, however; and the king was so pleased he hunted him an unusually
ripe berry, and perching before him, gave him his first language
lesson. Of course, the Cardinal knew how to cry "Pee" and "Chee" when
he burst his shell; but the king taught him to chip with accuracy and
expression, and he learned that very day that male birds of the
cardinal family always call "Chip," and the females "Chook." In fact,
he learned so rapidly and was generally so observant, that before the
king thought it wise to give the next lesson, he found him on a limb,
his beak closed, his throat swelling, practising his own rendering of
the tribal calls, "Wheat! Wheat! Wheat!" "Here! Here! Here!" and
"Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!" This so delighted the king that he whistled
them over and over and helped the youngster all he could.
He was so proud of him that this same night he gave him his first
lesson in tucking his head properly and going to sleep alone. In a few
more days, when he was sure of his wing strength, he gave him
instructions in flying. He taught him how to spread his wings and
slowly sail from tree to tree; how to fly in short broken curves, to
avoid the aim of a hunter; how to turn abruptly in air and make a quick
dash after a bug or an enemy. He taught him the proper angle at which
to breast a stiff wind, and that he always should meet a storm head
first, so that the water would run as the plumage lay.
His first bathing lesson was a pronounced success. The Cardinal
enjoyed water like a duck. He bathed, splashed, and romped until his
mother was almost crazy for fear he would attract a watersnake or
turtle; but the element of fear was not a part of his disposition. He
learned to dry, dress, and plume his feathers, and showed such
remarkable pride in keeping himself immaculate, that although only a
youngster, he was already a bird of such great promise, that many of
the feathered inhabitants of the Limberlost came to pay him a call.
Next, the king took him on a long trip around the swamp, and taught him
to select the proper places to hunt for worms; how to search under
leaves for plant-lice and slugs for meat; which berries were good and
safe, and the kind of weeds that bore the most and best seeds. He
showed him how to find tiny pebbles to grind his food, and how to
sharpen and polish his beak.
Then he took up the real music lessons, and taught him how to whistle
and how to warble and trill. "Good Cheer! Good Cheer!" intoned the
king. "Coo Cher! Coo Cher!" imitated the Cardinal. These songs were
only studied repetitions, but there was a depth and volume in his voice
that gave promise of future greatness, when age should have developed
him, and experience awakened his emotions. He was an excellent
musician for a youngster.
He soon did so well in caring for himself, in finding food and in
flight, and grew so big and independent, that he made numerous
excursions alone through the Limberlost; and so impressive were his
proportions, and so aggressive his manner, that he suffered no
molestation. In fact, the reign of the king promised to end speedily;
but if he feared it he made no sign, and his pride in his wonderful
offspring was always manifest. After the Cardinal had explored the
swamp thoroughly, a longing for a wider range grew upon him; and day
after day he lingered around the borders, looking across the wide
cultivated fields, almost aching to test his wings in one long, high,
wild stretch of flight.
A day came when the heat of the late summer set the marsh steaming, and
the Cardinal, flying close to the borders, caught the breeze from the
upland; and the vision of broad fields stretching toward the north so
enticed him that he spread his wings, and following the line of trees
and fences as much as possible, he made his first journey from home.
That day was so delightful it decided his fortunes. It would seem that
the swamp, so appreciated by his kindred, should have been sufficient
for the Cardinal, but it was not. With every mile he winged his
flight, came a greater sense of power and strength, and a keener love
for the broad sweep of field and forest. His heart bounded with the
zest of rocking on the wind, racing through the sunshine, and sailing
over the endless panorama of waving corn fields, and woodlands.
The heat and closeness of the Limberlost seemed a prison well escaped,
as on and on he flew in straight untiring flight. Crossing a field of
half-ripened corn that sloped to the river, the Cardinal saw many birds
feeding there, so he alighted on a tall tree to watch them. Soon he
decided that he would like to try this new food. He found a place
where a crow had left an ear nicely laid open, and clinging to the
husk, as he saw the others do, he stretched to his full height and
drove his strong sharp beak into the creamy grain. After the stifling
swamp hunting, after the long exciting flight, to rock on this swaying
corn and drink the rich milk of the grain, was to the Cardinal his
first taste of nectar and ambrosia. He lifted his head when he came to
the golden kernel, and chipping it in tiny specks, he tasted and
approved with all the delight of an epicure in a delicious new dish.
Perhaps there were other treats in the next field. He decided to fly
even farther. But he had gone only a short distance when he changed
his course and turned to the South, for below him was a long, shining,
creeping thing, fringed with willows, while towering above them were
giant sycamore, maple, tulip, and elm trees that caught and rocked with
the wind; and the Cardinal did not know what it was. Filled with
wonder he dropped lower and lower. Birds were everywhere, many flying
over and dipping into it; but its clear creeping silver was a mystery
to the Cardinal.
The beautiful river of poetry and song that the Indians first
discovered, and later with the French, named Ouabache; the winding
shining river that Logan and Me-shin-go-me-sia loved; the only river
that could tempt Wa-ca-co-nah from the Salamonie and Mississinewa; the
river beneath whose silver sycamores and giant maples Chief Godfrey
pitched his campfires, was never more beautiful than on that perfect
With his feathers pressed closely, the Cardinal alighted on a willow,
and leaned to look, quivering with excitement and uttering explosive
"chips"; for there he was, face to face with a big redbird that
appeared neither peaceful nor timid. He uttered an impudent "Chip" of
challenge, which, as it left his beak, was flung back to him. The
Cardinal flared his crest and half lifted his wings, stiffening them at
the butt; the bird he was facing did the same. In his surprise he
arose to his full height with a dexterous little side step, and the
other bird straightened and side-stepped exactly with him. This was
too insulting for the Cardinal. Straining every muscle, he made a dash
at the impudent stranger.
He struck the water with such force that it splashed above the willows,
and a kingfisher, stationed on a stump opposite him, watching the
shoals for minnows, saw it. He spread his beak and rolled forth
rattling laughter, until his voice reechoed from point to point down
the river. The Cardinal scarcely knew how he got out, but he had
learned a new lesson. That beautiful, shining, creeping thing was
water; not thick, tepid, black marsh water, but pure, cool, silver
water. He shook his plumage, feeling a degree redder from shame, but
he would not be laughed into leaving. He found it too delightful. In
a short time he ventured down and took a sip, and it was the first real
drink of his life. Oh, but it was good!
When thirst from the heat and his long flight was quenched, he ventured
in for a bath, and that was a new and delightful experience. How he
splashed and splashed, and sent the silver drops flying! How he ducked
and soaked and cooled in that rippling water, in which he might remain
as long as he pleased and splash his fill; for he could see the bottom
for a long distance all around, and easily could avoid anything
attempting to harm him. He was so wet when his bath was finished he
scarcely could reach a bush to dry and dress his plumage.
Once again in perfect feather, he remembered the bird of the water, and
returned to the willow. There in the depths of the shining river the
Cardinal discovered himself, and his heart swelled big with just pride.
Was that broad full breast his? Where had he seen any other cardinal
with a crest so high it waved in the wind? How big and black his eyes
were, and his beard was almost as long and crisp as his father's. He
spread his wings and gloated on their sweep, and twisted and flirted
his tail. He went over his toilet again and dressed every feather on
him. He scoured the back of his neck with the butt of his wings, and
tucking his head under them, slowly drew it out time after time to
polish his crest. He turned and twisted. He rocked and paraded, and
every glimpse he caught of his size and beauty filled him with pride.
He strutted like a peacock and chattered like a jay.
When he could find no further points to admire, something else caught
his attention. When he "chipped" there was an answering "Chip" across
the river; certainly there was no cardinal there, so it must be that he
was hearing his own voice as well as seeing himself. Selecting a
conspicuous perch he sent an incisive "Chip!" across the water, and in
kind it came back to him. Then he "chipped" softly and tenderly, as he
did in the Limberlost to a favourite little sister who often came and
perched beside him in the maple where he slept, and softly and tenderly
came the answer. Then the Cardinal understood. "Wheat! Wheat! Wheat!"
He whistled it high, and he whistled it low. "Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!"
He whistled it tenderly and sharply and imperiously. "Here! Here!
Here!" At this ringing command, every bird, as far as the river
carried his voice, came to investigate and remained to admire. Over and
over he rang every change he could invent. He made a gallant effort at
warbling and trilling, and then, with the gladdest heart he ever had
known, he burst into ringing song: "Good Cheer! Good Cheer! Good Cheer!"
As evening came on he grew restless and uneasy, so he slowly winged his
way back to the Limberlost; but that day forever spoiled him for a
swamp bird. In the night he restlessly ruffled his feathers, and
sniffed for the breeze of the meadows. He tasted the corn and the
clear water again. He admired his image in the river, and longed for
the sound of his voice, until he began murmuring, "Wheat! Wheat!
Wheat!" in his sleep. In the earliest dawn a robin awoke him singing,
"Cheer up! Cheer up!" and he answered with a sleepy "Cheer! Cheer!
Cheer!" Later the robin sang again with exquisite softness and
tenderness: "Cheer up, Dearie! Cheer up, Dearie! Cheer up! Cheer up!
Cheer!" The Cardinal, now fully awakened, shouted lustily, "Good
Cheer! Good Cheer!" and after that it was only a short time until he
was on his way toward the shining river. It was better than before,
and every following day found him feasting in the corn field and
bathing in the shining water; but he always returned to his family at
When black frosts began to strip the Limberlost, and food was almost
reduced to dry seed, there came a day on which the king marshalled his
followers and gave the magic signal. With dusk he led them southward,
mile after mile, until their breath fell short, and their wings ached
with unaccustomed flight; but because of the trips to the river, the
Cardinal was stronger than the others, and he easily kept abreast of
the king. In the early morning, even before the robins were awake, the
king settled in the Everglades. But the Cardinal had lost all liking
for swamp life, so he stubbornly set out alone, and in a short time he
had found another river. It was not quite so delightful as the shining
river; but still it was beautiful, and on its gently sloping bank was
an orange orchard. There the Cardinal rested, and found a winter home
after his heart's desire.
The following morning, a golden-haired little girl and an old man with
snowy locks came hand in hand through the orchard. The child saw the
redbird and immediately claimed him, and that same day the edict went
forth that a very dreadful time was in store for any one who harmed or
even frightened the Cardinal. So in security began a series of days
that were pure delight. The orchard was alive with insects, attracted
by the heavy odours, and slugs infested the bark. Feasting was almost
as good as in the Limberlost, and always there was the river to drink
from and to splash in at will.
In those days the child and the old man lingered for hours in the
orchard, watching the bird that every day seemed to grow bigger and
brighter. What a picture his coat, now a bright cardinal red, made
against the waxy green leaves! How big and brilliant he seemed as he
raced and darted in play among the creamy blossoms! How the little
girl stood with clasped hands worshipping him, as with swelling throat
he rocked on the highest spray and sang his inspiring chorus over and
over: "Good Cheer! Good Cheer!" Every day they came to watch and
listen. They scattered crumbs; and the Cardinal grew so friendly that
he greeted their coming with a quick "Chip! Chip!" while the delighted
child tried to repeat it after him. Soon they became such friends that
when he saw them approaching he would call softly "Chip! Chip!" and
then with beady eyes and tilted head await her reply.
Sometimes a member of his family from the Everglades found his way into
the orchard, and the Cardinal, having grown to feel a sense of
proprietorship, resented the intrusion and pursued him like a streak of
flame. Whenever any straggler had this experience, he returned to the
swamp realizing that the Cardinal of the orange orchard was almost
twice his size and strength, and so startlingly red as to be a wonder.
One day a gentle breeze from the north sprang up and stirred the orange
branches, wafting the heavy perfume across the land and out to sea, and
spread in its stead a cool, delicate, pungent odour. The Cardinal
lifted his head and whistled an inquiring note. He was not certain,
and went on searching for slugs, and predicting happiness in full round
notes: "Good Cheer! Good Cheer!" Again the odour swept the orchard, so
strong that this time there was no mistaking it. The Cardinal darted
to the topmost branch, his crest flaring, his tail twitching nervously.
"Chip! Chip!" he cried with excited insistence, "Chip! Chip!"
The breeze was coming stiffly and steadily now, unlike anything the
Cardinal ever had known, for its cool breath told of ice-bound fields
breaking up under the sun. Its damp touch was from the spring showers
washing the face of the northland. Its subtle odour was the
commingling of myriads of unfolding leaves and crisp plants,