brown-headed nuthatch

Conserving our self-image

I like birds, as you may notice if you read much around here. I find them fascinating. I’m alternately amazed by and fearful for the complexity of habitats and migratory patterns; I worry about the impact on them of things like wind farms and urban lighting and even overzealous tree-pruning. The brown-headed nuthatch may not be most people’s idea of charismatic megafauna, but I like them.

brown-headed nuthatch
Photo by Anne Davis licensed Creative Commons.

So, not surprisingly, among the many other emails I get from the many other subscriptions I’ve long since come to regret, I get emails now and then about bird science and bird conservation.

This morning I got an email from the Audubon Society with the subject “Preserving America’s Conservation Legacy.” Note the wording: not “conserving America’s natural places” or its natural beauty or natural heritage or even preserving conservation itself but preserving our conservation legacy. Not about protecting birds, but about our proud history of protecting birds, which is not quite the same thing.

Corrupting the youth

I have four bird feeders in my small urban yard (tube, thistle, platform, hummingbird) but can’t see any of them from my second-story study window, which is veiled by a maple tree far taller than the house. So I fixed a suction-cup window feeder to the upper pane. Earlier in the spring I didn’t get many takers, and those who came grabbed a quick morsel and retreated to the safety of the tree. But the past couple of weeks have seen a constant stream of fledglings: young male cardinals, scruffy and mottled, whom I’ve watched gradually redden and swell; a slender mockingbird who tried out his new repertoire in a nearby branch; a song sparrow who takes his peanut to the stone ledge of the window to peck it to bits; a juvenile house finch who, rather than perching on the feeder’s edge, stands in the pile of seed, hunts for the one he wants, then thoughtfully (as it appears to me) hulls and consumes it while watching me with (what, again, appears to me) casual curiosity three feet away behind glass. The finch is content to occupy the feeder for several minutes at a time while other birds wait in the tree like adolescents in line for the bathroom. Hurry up in there!

24. Unintended shelter

For unintended shelter. The winter’s assaults of ice tore twigs from branches, branches from trees, trees from the earth, and some of us who could not abide the chaos chopped and raked the refuse into piles. Some of us who cannot abide the chaos even raked and piled would no doubt have burned it, had the tinder been drier and less resinous. Instead the quick-sawn trunks and browning needles sit like a Christmas massacre, sinking imperceptibly into the woods and into memory. Sinking, that is, into our memory, and rising into the life of others. Today a cardinal perched atop a storm-pile, a sienna slash of straw in her mouth. When her mate returned they disappeared into the brush and danced, as it seemed from where I stood — danced for hope or for joy, danced their own continuing. Danced the spring into existence in a bed of winter’s trash.

10. A cardinal

For a cardinal that knows me. Early morning, poking round beneath the feeder for seeds and scraps the bumbling squirrels spilled, the cardinals see me coming but no longer scatter as they once did, or as the sparrows do. Generations have lived in this yard, built nests in its trees, brought their babies to the feeders I fill, and they have learned who fills them. When I approach with feed scoop in hand they fly to a nearby dogwood a few of my paces away and wait patient. An arm’s length out of reach and unafraid. The male this morning on his low branch is hard to miss, bright red in the naked tree, backlit by dawn. I watch him as he watches me. I talk to him a little, saying nothing he understands or doesn’t know, mere small talk between neighbors: a lovely morning, spring is coming, here’s your breakfast. Like others of my neighbors he is far from tame, and like most he is not my friend. He trusts me less than he trusts my routine, and he knows me less than my habits. But we are on neighbors’ good terms, and that is enough. Neighbors’ good terms may overcome fear, and the routine of two creatures make a tiny patch on the world’s brokenness. He has sustenance until April wakes the bugs, and I have a moment’s peace and wonder. It is enough for this morning.

Carolina chickadee

Prayer over a dead bird

Carolina chickadee

Photo by Virginia Sanderson.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t theologically correct, but it seemed to help my daughter on our lunchtime walk today, when we found a tiny bird lying on the asphalt, crushed by a car.

Lord, please guide the brave spirit of our brother chickadee to fields that are always green and full of seed, where the insects are plentiful but not too swift, and the skies are ever clear for flying; and make us all more aware of the presence of your beautiful creatures, whatever form they may take. In Jesus name: Amen.

the woods in summer, stylized

It is no longer June

the woods in summer, stylized

By nine the air already sweats.
The sun, wearier today than once
Climbs but slow, as travelers laden
Struggle to heft again damp spirits,
While all around our dizzied ears
This primeval din the wood exudes—
This moldering cacophony
Swells in time with sweltering
And seeps in through our pores like rain.
By nine the air already sweats.

But overhead on fruitless bough
A bird extends his morning song,
Forgetting that it is no longer June.

Birds do it

At the age of eight, Francie the Duck (Ret.) began turning into a drake. For eight years she had unquestionably been a hen, brown-feathered, egg-laying, but then she went through the change and now, two years later, her head feathers have a greenish tinge, her neck is thicker, her tail feather curls, her feet have turned orange. She has all the secondary sex characteristics of a drake.

What’s odder: her behavior has changed as well, and dramatically. Over the last year she took to watching over the two other remaining ducks when I let them out in the yard. While they grazed and hunted bugs, she kept an eye out. As a hen she had never shown a lick of interest in watching out for anything; she was the most devoted bug-hunter of the flock, but now she thought it more important to stand guard.

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.

Pimping for hawks

This morning a Cooper’s hawk picked off a mourning dove from underneath the bird feeder in the front yard, then perched on a pile of leaves in the woods to eat it methodically over the course of an hour, tearing off bits of flesh, tossing them back, discarding the feathers, ignoring the freezing rain that dripped on her shoulders. I’d filled the feeder last night in anticipation of the snow, and the squirrels being squirrels dumped a third of its contents onto the ground, which bounty lured the dove to the raptor’s waiting embrace. I’m reduced to pimping for hawks. Not to mention the leaves I’d raked into a pile last month for Ivy to jump in now gave the hawk vantage for glancing round, after every mouthful, to check that no one was scoping her lunch. No one was. The feeder had cleared, the finches scattered. The neighbor’s miniature dachshund was safely inside. And all this went on twenty feet from the window where I watched, looking up at intervals from my work, writing documentation for a web application, which seemed, in context, thoroughly pointless.

The benefits of sloth to one’s fellow creatures

This Earth Day post on a New York Times blog, about why dandelions are ok and “Wimbeldonlike” lawns maintained in their sterile protection by a chemical arsenal are bad, left me nonplussed — not because I disagree; I’ve written before about my natural lawn care, my preference for wildflowers over grass and my thorough distaste for gas-powered lawn mowers. I was happy to see somebody in so mainstream a publication taking a stand, even a modest and polite one, against chemically-maintained lawns.