12 May 2016 – The story of Layla

Today was a first for me, and I’ve been doing this almost daily for 6 years . . .

I rounded the corner to enter the northwest alcove and was greeted by the sound of a very angry cardinal.  This one, in fact:

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She was chipping nonstop – her mate was there too but hanging back a bit – at another lady cardinal who looked like she’d been having a bad day.

The corner was strewed with her feathers; she was mostly bald on the back of her head.

Here’s what seems to have taken place.  The disheveled female smacked the window and got stunned and then, as a “trapped” bird, couldn’t figure out how to turn around and escape. Then, like taking a wrong turn down an alley and getting trapped by local street thugs, the pair of birds didn’t take kindly to this interloper and they tried to drive her off their territory.  The poor stunned bird just sat there and endured quite a pummeling by the female of the pair.

Window collision leads to intraspecific aggression in Northern Cardinal.  This note practically writes itself.

Despite her rough morning, however, the female weathered the abuse pretty well, and I even had a bit of difficulty in catching her.  Here’s where the story takes on a more heartwarming aspect.

One delightful feature of life in Stillwater, OK is that we play host to the Special Olympics each May. Thousands of athletes with their families and support crews in the planet’s brightest T-shirts were on campus today, and heading over to the football stadium for Opening Ceremonies.  One such group approached me just after I had caught the cardinal and inquired if they could cut through the building on their way to the stadium.  I checked the door, determined that it was unlocked, and invited them to pass through the alcove, much like so many birds think they can do but, sadly, cannot.

Of course, when some Special Olympians and their squad are approaching you whilst you’re holding a disheveled lady cardinal in your hand, you make sure they get a chance to see her up close, and I did! 

It’s always fun for people to see birds up close, but there’s something about the times when I’ve worked with differently-abled folks that I’ve noticed that their sense of wonder and appreciation for such things is on a whole other level.  Their excitement did not disappoint!  They were really gentle, though, and very careful to ask first if they could touch the bird.  (I told them “no” just because I wasn’t sure they’d have a chance to quickly wash their hands after doing so, and that’s always the first thing I do after handling a wild bird.)

Then came the questions, and the first one knocked me for a loop:  “What’s her name?”  The first thing this little girl wanted to know was not the strange set of circumstances that led to some guy walking around with a cardinal in his hand, she first wanted to personalize the cardinal.  It was a startlingly beautiful reaction to the situation!

I was a bit proud of myself for maintaining my composure rather than simply crying and hugging this little girl, so I responded,”I don’t know.  What do you think we should name her?”

Without missing a beat:  “Layla.  Her name is Layla.”

“Layla it is, then!”

For the next few minutes, I explained to them that Layla hit the window and got confused and that the local cardinals were angry with her.  On cue, the male started singing robustly. “See?  That’s the male up there on the roof.” I told them that I was taking Layla to the row of trees nearby where she could rest a bit and then get on with her day. She was going to be just fine.  In the span of a few minutes, they learned a lesson in window collisions for birds, territoriality, and intraspecific aggression. They didn’t need a lesson in empathy or compassion – they already knew that stuff.

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