Published by Trevor Bechtel on

Good morning,

In his book, What the Robin Knows, Jon Young tells the following story about a pair of cardinals.

It begins with the familiar chirp that cardinals make.

We have all heard that chirp even if we were sure what it was. I first learned to associate it with cardinals around six years ago.

Anyways, this story begins with that chirp.
Jon hears it from a male cardinal just one, “chirp”

If you know bird song the way that Jon does; well enough to write a book about it; then you know that that chirp is the regular communication between a pair of cardinals. It means, alternately, “Hi” or “Are you there” or “Are you alright” or “Be careful” or “Crap that’s a big hawk, watch out!” Cardinals use this greeting insistently, over and over again throughout their days. I think that Susan and I have evolved a similar pattern with our use of “Hi” to mean many of the same things, depending on context, time of day, whether one of us is by a window or not. We tend to be more interested in deer and less interested in hawks but otherwise, you get the idea. If the second cardinal doesn’t respond, it’s often the case the the first will repeat, an intensified call, moving in meaning from “Are you there” to “Are you alright?” This need for an answer is definitely a part of how Susan and I converse.

Anyways, when Jon hears the male cardinal “chirp” he doesn’t hear a response. He tenses. And sure enough he quickly hears a “chirp-chirp” followed by the furious beating of wings as the male heads towards the area where the female had just been feeding. And then, out of the other corner of his eye, Jon sees a flash of brown; the female in sudden flight with a sharp-shinned hawk closing fast behind her. The female was headed for a wall of brush and vines hoping to lose the hawk.

“Just as the hawk was about to reach the female, the male burst onto the stage at a dead, bright red sprint and flung himself right between his lady love and the hawk. It was a Superman-like maneuver–just amazing. Distracted the sharpie faltered and swerved to purse the male, but the male had too much velocity and a trajectory almost perpendicular to that of the other two birds. Even the sharpie, with his incredible turn on a dime agility, couldn’t pull it off.”

Both cardinals turned towards the bush and disappeared inside.

Anyways, six years ago I was spending a lot of time in my backyard building a pizza oven with my sister. It was her idea–she wanted to make all of her first time mistakes on the oven in my backyard, and I was game for this. We be outside by 8 in the morning and would work until 8 at night, and we would hear that “chirp” the whole

time. Now that I have put a bird feeder up in my backyard it is even more prominent. My sister had had an encounter with a bear earlier that spring on a camping trip– potentially very dangerous but in the end only a gift–and had adopted the bear as her spirit animal. She suggested that the cardinal might be my spirit animal. Again I agreed. The cardinal works for me in many ways: cardinals are songbirds, they aren’t afraid of bright plumage, they live in numbers in my backyard. When Susan found out I was connecting to the cardinal in this way she was agitated, because she had thought of the cardinal as her spirit animal. Eventually, susan and I decided we could share, and for reasons I’ve already discussed, I think this makes sense.

Except for one thing right.

For Susan and I even more than for my sister, but for my sister too, having a spirit animal is clear example of cultural appropriation. Native American religious practices are incredibly inclusive and generous to outsiders. I have been included in Pow-Wows and ceremonial dances; and my sister has completed two major multi-week walks with Native peoples to advocate for Bill 262 in Canada and to protect the water of southeastern Ontario, but neither of us are in any way practitioners of Native religion, and therefore can’t have spirit animals. The logic of non-natives adopting spirit animals is the logic of colonization. We casually, or seriously, adopt something that we haven’t earned or asked for. The problems with this are multiple ranging from the inappropriate use of a sacred practice to the white logic of feeling like we can take that we hasn’t been given to us. This kind of cultural appropriation is very easy to do and it’s probably something that we all do. It may even be harder to not do it the more we know. I learned about spirit animals from my sister who knows more about native culture and has more friends in native communities than I do. Colonization is a fact of life for those of us who live in Washtenaw County. And I could, and maybe should, at this point detail much more of the history of Native Americans in Washtenaw County with the story of how white people took away their land and culture, but instead I’m going to pause and hold this injustice which is historic but reverberates into the present for a second and return to the cardinal.

Cardinals are known as being very territorial. It’s easy to find male cardinals swooping at each other, and there are famous stories of cardinals persistently attacking that stupid cardinal in the mirror or the window who just won’t take the hint and leave already. Sometimes they keep this up for months.

But cardinals are also social birds joining the guild of birds that move together especially in winter time eating the same food and relying on the larger flock for warmth and protection from predators. When I put up my bird feeder I expected that I would get birds at a regular frequency, perhaps even at the same time each day. I eat at roughly the same time each day and the birds seem to have their stuff together more than me so why wouldn’t they also eat at the same time each day. What I observed instead was that there would be nothing for several days at a time and then all of a sudden there would be scores of birds of many different species crowding the feeder and together eating a third of its sunflower seeds in a sitting.

Cardinals are also known for living in stable male female pairs, although this isn’t perfect; they may change mates from year to year and a percentage of chicks have fathers that aren’t their mother’s partner. Stories like Betsy’s, the one I began with, or the one where a pair are outside my back window; the male at the feeder and the female on the wire above; and I’m watching him bring her seeds that he’s shelled, paint a harmonious picture of cardinal bliss.

And so cardinals are well loved by humans. Their distinctive tuft and brilliant orange beak contrasted by red or brown inspire human creativity and response. They are easy to see and identify. The cardinals became the state bird of seven states, and were in the running for Delaware. Michigan also has a red bird as its’ state bird; the robin. Why do we not have the cardinal as our state bird?

Well it turns out that the cardinal is not indigenous to Michigan. The cardinal’s original range likely included southern Ohio and they were known in northern Ohio by the 1830’s. So if we had bird ranges on these maps but kept 1800 as our reference date the cardinal wouldn’t be there. The cardinal was first recorded in southeast Michigan in 1884 and was common by 1909. They colonized the U.P. as recently as 1994.

The cardinal has benefitted from three positive factors in their push northward: 1) more edge habitat between fields and forests as the forests have been cut down, 2) warmer temperatures, 3) more bird feeders like the one in my backyard creating stable winter food sources. Cardinals do really well in the suburban communities that many of us live in.

Cardinals may not be our spirit animal but they are a lot like most of us in being relatively new to Michigan. When the cardinal ranges north it seems to us like a natural thing, or, like something that we created by building suburbs. So it’s interesting that we use the word colonized both for when humans move by force and when birds move by opportunity. I’m definitely not saying that these are the same thing, although both have their effects. When the cardinal moves it allows the ecosystem to support more of the kinds of hawks that eat cardinals and competes with similar birds like catbirds and mockingbirds for nesting sites.

What is the slow knowledge that Cardinals offer us? I wonder sometimes if this is a bit like wondering if there is anything useful for us in the book of Joshua. My guess is that the bulk of the Joshua passage that Zach read for us this morning has not commonly be read in peace church worship services. It calls for genocide in clear military terms and insists on the strength, clarity of purpose, courage, and unwavering movement forward. It’s not really our way. But nonetheless we find ourselves with land we did not till, cities we did not build and we have settled in them. And we are not really helped when we turn to the hornet who reminds us that God was active, more effectively active than Israel, in destroying the Amorites.

Is there a way that we can say with Joshua, “As for me and my house, we will serve God” while continuing to live in houses built on stolen land?

One way to do this is to be a part of a community that recognizes that these are real problems. This means that we do not pat ourselves on the back for figuring this out, but that we are willing to sit, for awhile, with the recognition that our privilege comes with a cost. The slowness of lent can be a good time to take a steely eye to this reality. We can want to see the cardinal, the bird in front of us, but what we might need to see is the land beyond the present where the cardinal still lives hundreds of miles to the south. We need to recognize that we don’t have all the answers.

Part of this is also learning about the past. Another layer of these maps could be the history of Native settlement, travel, burial, and agriculture in our county, the land beyond, which is what Washtenaw means in Chippewa.

But part of the lesson of the cardinal is also that we live here now and there is work to do to make this county a better place. The cardinal actively suppresses west nile virus making it much more difficult for mosquitos to spread the virus. Like the cardinal in the forest guild we can make connections to others in our community working for justice. One opportunity we will have a couple of times in the next month is to connect to The Church of the Incarnation who are both hosting a Climate Change Forum and a Good Friday service which we are invited to. And like the cardinal we can work to suppress the virus of white supremacy and colonization in our midst. We find ourselves in a space that waits for resurrection and connection. Let us work towards it.

Categories: Sermons


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