You can’t tell the birds anything

Spring is entering its second act. The bluets are fading, the last of the dogwood flowers fluttered off today in the downpour, but the trees all have their leaves, the birds have paired off and spread out to claim their nesting spots, the robins to a poplar, the jays to the brush in the woods, the wrens to the sheltered cap of the propane tank. This is what the wrens do, year after year. You leave three-quarters of an acre of open woods and they nest in your propane tank, when they don’t claim the shelves in the shed.

The cardinals have been courting for weeks, a big scarlet male bringing food to a female — the one who broke her leg last summer as a fledgling and has survived the winter darting back and forth to the feeders and now, it seems just possible, is going to beat evolution and reproduce. The Little Lame Cardinal, balancing one-legged on the edge of the birdbath, nesting in the bay laurel, passing on her clumsy genes, and also her plucky ones. Winning! That’s the thing about nature; you can’t predict it. You can identify grand strategies and see broad sweeps and make educated guesses about generalities, but you can’t predict the details. The details are the good stuff. The stories are in the details. You think you know how they end, but sometimes nature likes to play little jokes on itself, and all you can do is wait for the punchline.

St. Francis

Also they crap on St. Francis’ head.

This winter I tore up the last of the Chinese hollies that used to line the front of the house, alternated with boxwoods. Green blobs. Why does everybody stick green blobs in front of their houses before they sell them? As a curse on the buyers who will have to dig them out a decade hence? Sterile things, too; nothing here can eat them. I know that’s the attraction, that bugs leave them alone, but no bugs means no food for baby birds, no lunch for the skinks that sun themselves on the front wall. And they had grown big and rangy, which was my fault, but to prune a Chinese holly means making it more regular, when my aesthetic runs toward the asymmetrical and the slightly askew, and I couldn’t ever get up the enthusiasm to enforce an order I didn’t appreciate. One year the hollies fruited beautifully, a bumper crop of berries, and it was pretty, I suppose, for Christmas, but none of the usual birds touched them. In February a flock of cedar waxwings arrived and demolished the entire crop in two days. But as a rule the hollies didn’t suit my tastes or the birds’, so what good were they?

No good at all, so out they went. Two came out last spring to make way for an herb garden; the rest now have made way for cutting flowers, a cold frame, and a bird-and-butterfly garden. Native perennials, dwarf sunflowers, some sort of flowering seed mix we found at the feed ‘n’ grain. Parsley and whatnot for caterpillars. And mint, to which I’m happy to abandon that half of the front yard, so I can sit in my adirondack chair drinking juleps while I watch the butterflies.

The flowers are up, now, green stubble in the dark mud. They don’t look like much yet, only hope. While I was hacking away at the last holly root a couple of birds flew through the great open space and did what I guessed was a bird double-take. What the… It was here yesterday! I wanted to tell them Great Things Are Coming! This Space Under Improvement, We Apologize for the Inconvenience. Put up a sign, or something. But you can’t tell the birds anything. They’re like kids, that way. You just try to make a nice habitat and hope for the best.