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The Self-Conscious Cardinal

Bird Looking in the Mirror Sets Off Flights of Fancy

I’ve been a writer since I was about 7 years old, when I started writing poems, and though I have sometimes found myself blocked it was not a frequent occurrence. For one thing, the life I lived before I got sober was full of sturm und drang, as such lives tend to be. Surprisingly, after I got sober I was blocked for a full four years, as I discovered who I was. Miracle of miracles, it turned out I was a sunny and optimistic person, grateful to be who I was and to have what I had.

I do not write every day, though every successful writer says you must, because I no longer want to write a book. When I go to the library my feeling is there are quite enough books, thank you very much, and the world doesn’t need my added verbiage. Instead, I write these little sermonettes; notes from the post-religious but still moral world. (I am close enough to my Puritan ancestors to insist on a world in which there is right and wrong.) The topics occur with some regularity; all I have to do, as I said in a previous essay, is keep my eyes open.

A pair of cardinals is nesting in my yard this year, and they’ve raised a clutch of young. I see the younger ones around sometimes; they have not yet developed the bright red plumage. One I found dead in my flower garden, a victim of my cat. ( I apologize to you other cat lovers, not to mention the cardinal; I know I should keep my cat in but...) They eat a lot of the feed I spread down for my banties, and visit the compost pile on occasion. I’ve grown used to their alarm calls when I step out on the deck. The National Audubon Society interprets their songs as: Rich what cheer cheer cheer, purty-purty-purty-purty or sweet-sweet-sweet-sweet, and now that I’ve listened to recordings on the Internet I realize that it is them I hear singing almost every hour of every day.

Yesterday, I was looking out my kitchen window and saw a flurry of activity by my parked red Prius. The male cardinal was hopping on the side mirror, then hopping down to cling to the bottom of the mirror so it could see itself, hopping back up, back down, back up, back down. I remembered I’d seen it do that before, and wondered what was up. Two things occurred to me in an instant; the cardinal liked my car because it was red, and it probably thought its image was a stealthy intruder, trespassing on his territory. Either that, or he was vain.

Scientists say that it is only the animals of higher intelligence, like apes, that can recognize themselves in a mirror. One way they determine this is to put something, like a bow say, on the ape, place it in front of a mirror and see if the creature reaches for the bow, thereby indicating that they know the image is of them. This would mean the cardinal, being a mere bird, does not know that it is seeing itself in the mirror, but rather is mightily puzzled by the rival who lives there, silently staring back at him. His one asset seems to be the huge red metal body in which it lives.

But, as a writer I’m prone to flights of fancy. What if the rest of the world’s consciousness is evolving right along with us, and animals are developing a sense of self. This cardinal knows the bird in the mirror is him, and he checks his image daily to make sure his bill is shiny and his crest is just so. He is proud to be owner of this small strip along the river, and pleased with his growing family of young ones. He will stay here all winter, and start a dynasty of cardinals, all growing fat and happy on chicken food. But he fears his own death and wonders how it’s possible that the world will continue when he’s no longer in it.

I wonder how the world would change if animals became self-conscious? Would it be better or worse? And, is our self consciousness itself an evolutionary mistake, which has taken us far from the Eden of simple being?

As far as I’m concerned, the more self-consciousness the better. Though I cannot say why, I believe in the evolution of the soul. I think the soul is made of matter we cannot measure yet, maybe that weird stuff called dark energy. Everything we do has meaning, death ends in rebirth and love is the ladder to every answer.

Sybil Smith lives in Norwich.