"Nature Red in Tooth and Claw" ~ Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Posted on Friday, July 17, 2015 by Svetlana Grobman

Cardinal attacks window“It’s raining cats and dogs,” my husband said.

“It sure is,” I said, still – after all my 25 years in America – trying to envision what raining animals would look like.

Pouring rain is common in Missouri, and some years, mowing a lawn once a week no longer cuts it (excuse my pun). Yet this summer the grass hasn’t seemed to grow like crazy, while the rest of our plants have.

One day, after work, I walked around the house and realized that our property has turned into a jungle: the trees have spread their branches as if trying to swallow our house, the plants beside our walk have oozed onto it for about a foot, and our deck appears much shadier than I ever remembered it.

The result looks spooky, reminding me of a book I read some time ago – “The World Without Us” – which postulates that plants could cover all traces of human existence within about a hundred years or so.

“Do you have the feeling that everything is encroaching on us?” I asked my husband.

“I don’t know about that,” he said. “But I do have a feeling that we’re under attack.”

“What attack?” I said, but before I finished my question, something hit our living room window.

“That’s a bird crashing into our window,” my husband said. “It’s been doing that all day. I’m surprised you didn’t hear it in the morning.”

“A-a-h, that’s what that racket was about,” I said. “I heard something in the bathroom, but I thought it was a woodpecker.”

“It’s a cardinal,” my husband said. “I had the same problem with a robin in my old house. I had to spread glass wax on the windows to stop him from attacking them.”

“We’re not greasing windows in our living room!” I said firmly, conveying that whatever solution he had found before he married me would not be used now. However, at that moment, something struck the dining room window, too.

“Why is it doing that?!” I said.

“Some birds gather in flocks, but robins and cardinals are territorial. The males try to chase away competitors, so, when they see their reflection in the window, they attack it,” my husband said, and a series of loud collisions echoed his speech.

This isn’t the first time that nature has altered my American dream. Deer were the first culprits. They ate everything in our yard. I tried to fight them with “Deer-off” and folk remedies like moth balls, strong-smelling soap, human hair (one of my friends is a hair stylist) and a concoction of pepper, hot sauce, and ketchup. In the end, I gave up and planted boxwood bushes everywhere – which deer don’t eat.

Over the years, we’ve also had squirrels digging flowers out of flower pots on our deck (I now have artificial flowers there), groundhogs building burrows under our porches, and raccoons trying to get into our basement. And now, we have cardinals trying to destroy our windows – two of which we just replaced for $1500!

“If you don’t like glass wax, what do you suggest we do?” my husband said.

“I don’t know. Maybe we should get a scarecrow. A toy owl or something,” I said.

OwlSeveral days later, a large inflatable owl appeared behind our dining room window, looking very ferocious and scaring me every time I accidentally looked at it. The cardinal took notice, too. It stopped striking the window directly in front of the owl and concentrated its efforts on the rest of the window.

“We should change its position,” I offered. “Like it’s moving.”

We did, and I can report that the cardinal never hit the exact spot protected by the owl – just the space immediately around it.

Then I had a Eureka moment: “Let’s put our window screens up!”

“I don’t like screens …,” my husband started to say, but a series of direct hits against his study window changed his mind, so he headed to the garage to look for screens that he had put away years ago because they “obstructed” his view.

These screens didn’t solve the problem completely, but they sure helped – the constant attacks were replaced with occasional sallies, and the sharp blows were replaced with the dull thumps.

Yet the upper, arch-shaped part of our living room window had no screen, so it became the cardinal’s main battleground.

“Does anybody have problems with birds flying into windows?” I asked my colleagues the next day.

One answered. A winged kamikaze flew into her window and killed itself.

“They don’t see glass,” she said. “So, they just fly through it.”

“What are you going to do?” I said.

“I heard that Songbird Station sells a spray that makes glass visible for the birds, but people don’t notice it much.”

This product, which is advertised as a “UV Liquid,” comes in a small canister filled with a whitish translucent substance that is spread in thin lines on the window in decorative patterns – the picture on the package shows a heart. To my dismay, these lines were very visible to us. In fact, we seemed to be the only creatures who noticed my husband’s messy drawing. Our cardinal ignored it completely.

Next my husband bought a stick-on strip of translucent film that he applied to the glass – also from Songbird Station. Now we had two spots the bird avoided: a piece of stained glass, which replaced the inflatable owl, and the strip underneath. The rest of the area became the cardinal’s last stand.

As I’m writing this story, the bird is still crashing into our windows, while my husband contemplates covering them with translucent strips from top to bottom. (He has already smeared glass wax on the doors to the basement and the garage.) The latest development is that we have become so used to constant banging that I sometimes stop worrying about our window (or my headache) and start worrying about whether the cardinal has any time to eat or do other birdy things. But that doesn’t usually last long.

So, what’s the lesson of this story? I don’t really know. It could be a warning about the power of nature. Or it could be a lesson about futility. After all, don’t we humans do the same sort of thing cardinals are doing – endlessly repeating the same fruitless attempts, marrying the wrong kinds of people, or doing other self-destructive things? In fact, it could be me who behaves like that cardinal when I try to promote my book, constantly hitting my head on the obstacles imposed by the publishing industry. Should I stop? Should all of us stop trying? What are our chances of success?

Well, I guess, if we don’t try, we’ll never know.

Svetlana Grobman is the author of “The Education of a Traitor: A Memoir of Growing Up in Cold War Russia.” See Svetlana’s interview with Paul Pepper at “Radio Friends with Paul Pepper.”