Why I Broke One Of My ‘Cardinal’ Rules

I thought guns were evil. Then a tiny red bird came to call, and I had to rethink everything.

Guns are evil. This inviolate “death and taxes” truth sustained me — a peace-loving granny, a tree-hugging liberal — through 64 years of protected, upper-middle-class subsistence. It was the one fixed point on a vacillating compass of relative morality until, one day, a tiny bird, the merest wisp of red plumage, tore away my comforting absolute and aligned me squarely with the NRA supporters, Second Amendment defenders and pro-gun crusaders I had reviled.

Three years ago a male northern cardinal, or Cardinalis cardinalis, began hurling himself against the windows of our solar home. His assaults commenced at dawn. Each sunrise he would alight on our greenhouse roof and slide down the glass panels, pecking furiously at his scarlet reflection. He’d attack the bedroom, living room and dining-room windows before returning to the greenhouse to repeat his loop. Bang! Click, click. Scratch, scratch.

After 14 months of incessant attacks, Cardinalis held our family hostage. We tried everything to win our freedom and a little sleep. My husband and I wrapped sticky tape around tree branches and along window frames; we wove webs of fishing line across our five-foot windows, wired plaster cardinals to peripheral tree branches, propped mirrors in the gardens, placed plastic owls and stuffed toys in windows and baited a Hav-A-Heart trap with sunflower seeds. We threw stones at our tormentor and sprayed him with the garden hose, all to no avail.

After living for 36 months under the siege of Cardinalis, I cracked. My sleep patterns had altered, my ability to concentrate (already declining with age) was spiraling down to about 30-second intervals. My hands were shaky, my head ached, my vision blurred. I had morphed from a cookie-baking granny to a crazed zombie. I turned away from my bleeding-heart pals toward those who enjoy a more pragmatic turn of mind—those who honor the way of the warrior.

“I want to kill a cardinal,” I announced to the middle-aged man behind the gun counter.

He glanced up from the weapon he was dismantling or cleaning or appraising and said, “It’s against the law to shoot a cardinal.”

“This is self-defense.” I explained my predicament.

“Here’s the gun you need.” He pulled a used gun from a rack. It was single-barreled with a polished wooden butt. “It’s not too heavy,” he continued. “Doesn’t have much of a kick, and it’s cheap.” The tag read $70.

As we scribbled through a mound of paperwork, I commented, “I’ll bet you don’t get too many liberal women in here buying guns.”

He chuckled. “You’d be surprised.” His eyes sharpened as he declared: “A gun is evil only until you need one.”

Following a crash course on loading, sighting and firing, I left the shop. That very same day I took aim at Cardinalis. He had perched on a “safe” limb, one with only forest behind it. My hand shook as I placed a cartridge in the hold and snapped it closed. I raised the gun, placed its butt against my shoulder, cocked it and fired.

The bird flew off, unscathed. Blood oozed from a cut on my finger, and my shoulder ached. After cleaning the gun, I folded a dish towel over my sore shoulder, reloaded and returned to the hunt. The bird had returned to his spot, preparing for a run at the windows. I shot and missed, though this time I, too, escaped injury.

All that week I worked in the garden, my gun by my side, my dog banished to the house. I weeded and waited, eager for this nightmare to end. The bird continued bombarding the windows, but never positioned himself for a proper shot.

At the end of the week, he hit a bedroom window, then darted to a well-placed tree limb. I raised the gun, cocked it, and fired. The little red demon, Cardinalis cardinalis, fluttered to earth.

A wave of relief washed over me followed by another of disbelief. I’d actually hit a tiny target from 60 feet. I felt an urge to beat my breast and howl in triumph. I was a convert, a born-again predator.

Then 60-plus years of culture kicked in. My knees grew wobbly, tears fell on the gun’s fine wood. What had I done?

I left my prey where he had fallen. I stashed the gun in a little-used closet and mourned the demented bird and the parts of me that had died with him. I had lost another comfort zone of self-righteousness, another “death and taxes” truth.

Originally published in Newsweek