The scaldeens

Leaving aside poetry & Irish matters for the moment:  we had an interesting event recently.   A mother cardinal decided to build a nest and start her family in a shrub just outside our kitchen window.

Was this a good decision on her part?  She and her mate were upset about the big creatures who kept opening and closing the blinds– staring at her! — and rudely going in and out the front door, making her very nervous (we almost begged her pardon each time).  But she persisted.  Eggs were laid, and the babies hatched!  Then both parents were kept very busy indeed feeding the hungry little mouths.

And one morning Lynn got me up to tell me that one little fellow had fallen out of the nest, prompting much fluttering and chipping from the distressed parents.  Or maybe he’d just jumped out? for when I managed to scoop him up and put him back, he was soon out again:


We think there were three hatchlings, and soon all three were out and hopping around, giving the parents  fits.  We agonized with them– for one thing, a number of our neighbors have outdoor cats; and we shooed away many a stalking cat found roaming about like the Devil in  St. Peter’s epistle, going about  “like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour”.  In the cat’s case mewing, not roaring, and seeking to devour baby birds and suchlike…

Here’s the father in the shrub, looking for his offsprings:


I’m sorry to say that, as far as we could see, none of the fledglings were to be found anywhere in the vicinity the next day.  But I hope at least one survived.  We’ve had quite a few cardinals in our back yard, and most years we see youngsters who have made it, fluffing up their feathers and fluttering their little wings, chirping to their harassed parents:  “feed me, feed me!”  Until, presumably, the parents finally tell them “you’re on your own now.”

When I was a small boy in the Irish countryside we were always looking for nests of birds, to see the “scaldeens” as we called them.  Our elders told us that if you touched the nest or eggs or babies the parents would abandon the nest– which isn’t usually true, but probably helped keep us from harassing the poor birds and making it happen.

I don’t know the origin of the term “scaldeen”– was it a purely County Leitrim term?  In the Old Norse language “The skald was a member of a group of poets” (thank you, Wikipedia).  And of course the Vikings left their mark on Ireland some centuries befor the English.  Perhaps the Irish added the diminutive  and made it scaildín (scaldeen) to denote a little singer?  I’ll have to consult others in the Irish diaspora on this weighty matter.


5 Responses to “The scaldeens”

  1. Ed Schmahl Says:

    A couple of times Beth and I have had birds nesting on our front porch, both here in Boulder and in Bowie, MD. In Bowie, the nests were located about 15 ft from our front door in a hanging plant about 6′ above the ground. The poor parents were scared out of their wits every time we opened the door and never managed to lay eggs.

    When a similar nesting happened thse spring on our Boulder front porch, the nest (again in a hanging plant) was only 3 feet from the door, and the birds abandoned their nest for better quarters at our first appearance.

    So we haven’t had your good luck at watching the nestlings emerge and try to fly. But we keep hanging plants out on our patio, which is more private, and maybe birds will nest some day out there where we can watch them too!

  2. PJK Says:

    We have seen NO baby cardinals this spring. We fear this is due to the number of cats which our neighbors allow to go out, get some fresh air, and hunt birds. We’ve counted 4 of these predators (at least). Bird lovers say that they take quite a toll on wild birds, and probably some mammals, like young rabbits (we’ve had those too in previous years). Cats are fine creatures, but we wish more suburban cat owners would keep them inside!

  3. John Feeney Says:

    This word (“scaldeen”) came into my head recently. I recall my parents (mother from Donegal; father from Leitrim) using it to refer to some/any small insignificant creature, even a person. I decided to google it this morning and found a very few references.

    Actually, I remember it being pronounced “skal-dee”, with the accent on the first syllable. But maybe my American ears just did not hear the “n” of the Irish diminutive.

    I remember asking what it meant, pretty sure on more than one occasion, and being told it was “a bird with no feathers”, i.e., a baby bird or chicken hatchling.

    Now, I could not swear that my mother used this word, but, of course it is sure that at least one of my parents did.

  4. pjoenotes Says:

    Hi John, thanks for your comment. I was born in Leitrim, like your father.
    I like the idea that the word is from the Norse “skald”, since birds do sing. And as you know the Vikings were all over Ireland; Donegal in Irish is “Dún na nGall”, meaning “the Dun(fort) of the Strangers”– they were the strangers before the English.
    I had to go back 18 months to my skaldeens post; I see I’ve neglected my entire blog for some time– glad somebody(yourself) has noted it! Some other postings on Irish matters are the following,
    from when we visited Philadelphia:

    All the best,
    — Peter K.

  5. John Feeney Says:

    Thank you for your reply.

    I had seen two derivations for Donegal: fort/stronghold of the stranger/foreigner (as you had it) and fort/stronghold of the Gael, but I’m very much inclined that it is the first.

    Somewhere I read that Norse genes were particularly prevalent in Leitrim. My father, who died long before I read this and didn’t know what genes are, claimed he was often taken for a Norwegian in the bars in the then Norwegian neighborhood of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, though he didn’t look Norwegian to me. (But what do I know about what looks Norwegian to someone from Norway?) I do know that the neighbors referred to my father’s immediate family on that desolate mountainside in Leitrim as the “white Feeneys” because they were all so blond — to distinguish them from all the many other Feeneys in the vicinity.

    It would be interesting to know what an old-time Irish speaker would say about his/her understanding of “scaldeen”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: