We first noticed the bedraggled Northern Cardinal because of his peculiar feeding motion. Instead of leaning forward to pluck a black oil sunflower seed out of the tray feeder, he dipped, ever so precariously, into a deep knee bend, then pushed himself back up, wobbling the entire way. Could he be ill? He truly didn’t look well, with feathers out of place and dirty.
We continued to scan the bird with our binoculars to see if we could find any obvious signs of injury or illness, but were coming up empty, until we noticed he only had one leg!
It was cold and late in the day, and our yard is known to host several predators, including, despite our best efforts to educate our neighbors, the occasional roaming cat. We did not hold out much hope for the little bird if left alone, so we tried to capture him and take him to the Wildlife Sanctuary. However, he could still fly, and did so quite well, if we dared approach him. It was decided that instead of stressing him further, we’d leave him on his own.
The next morning we searched the yard for evidence of an expired cardinal, and happily found none. Despite also not seeing any sign of our one-legged bird, not seeing obvious signs of his death allowed us to hold out hope for his survival.
We anxiously waited for him to reappear, and finally, a few days later, there he was! A little stronger in his dips, but still so pitiful looking, and so low in the pecking order that every other bird on our feeders tortured him. Still, each time he was chased off the feeders, he’d watch for an opening and return, grab a seed, get chased off again, and repeat. We marveled that the few seeds he was able to grab was enough to sustain him. Before long he figured out that eating from the ground wasn’t such a bad deal, and there was a lot less competition. Each day we saw him, he grew stronger.
Being human and needing to name anything fluffy and sweet, we decided to name our little bird Dipper, and cries of, “Dipper is back!” were soon shouted through our house.
He’d disappear for weeks on end and our hearts would skip a beat, knowing that this could be the time he wouldn’t return. Despite his long absences, Dipper made it through his first winter somehow. When we again spotted him at the feeders, he looked much stronger on his one leg, and his feathers were cleaner and crisper. Dipper had beaten all the odds! He’d developed such a keen eye for anything out of the ordinary, that grabbing a photo of him was impossible. While other cardinals would sit in our Althea tree allowing my attempts to photograph them through our office window, Dipper would leave the tree as soon as he sensed movement in the house.
We continued to see our sharp little bird on and off for nearly 5 years. Agonizing when he left for weeks at a time, and rejoicing when he returned. But 5 years is a long life for a one-legged wild bird in a cat infested neighborhood, and one day we realized that Dipper had stopped visiting us. We took a moment to remember the spunky little bird who’d won a place in our hearts, and to this day we hold out hope we’ll see him again. After all, Dipper is an odds-beater!
By Brenda Callaway