Some friends of my parents, people I’ve never met, spent time designing, building, and painting a good, solid birdhouse as a family project. When they heard about my personal connection to the bird world, they kindly gave it to my parents to pass along to me. When I received this gift, I didn’t have a home of my own or a yard in which to stake a claim for birds. I was touched by the generosity of these strangers, but couldn’t imagine where I’d be able to use the birdhouse. At that time, we lived in a big apartment building in Brooklyn, a block from Prospect Park, the lesser-known but equally magnificent sister of Manhattan’s Central Park. In Prospect’s hidden, leafy walks I stalked birds, hunted berries, and photographed fungi; in its rambling, open meadows I frolicked in sunlight. Our three-year stint in Brooklyn ended last July in a transition that took my husband, me, and our yet unborn baby to live with family in our native Rhode Island. Now hundreds of miles from that fantastic greensward, I find joy in the backyards and hidden greenspaces of suburban Johnston. Our quiet neighborhood is home to a small brook and a few patches of woodland, dwindling rapidly thanks to the human touch. But there is much life in these parts -- many familiar birds and mammals, and some elusive and surprising creatures as well.
Back in the waning of the summer and the waxing of my pregnancy, I felt lonely for birds; heavy with child, I found my stamina for hiking and birding greatly diminished. So I perched the little wooden birdhouse in the front yard in a small tree about eight feet from the front bay window. With a few nails strategically placed by my mother-in-law for stability, the little wooden structure seemed a perfect hideaway. It sat empty for ages, as I knew it would, the year being far past nesting season. Many birds frequented the tree in autumn, however, for its abundance of red berries. In winter, though I was considerably lighter, it was now too cold to take an infant outdoors. In my impatience, I began to wonder if the ledge near the birdhouse's entrance hole was wrong for bird-use, or whether I should change the direction the birdhouse faced. As with all things, only time would tell.
Now it is deep February, with skies like ice, clear and cold. Just a few afternoons ago, I spotted a house sparrow casing the joint, checking for safety from predators, proximity to cover, quality of visibility for mating displays. I peek at the house for a few minutes every day now. He seems to have deemed the little brown and blue house worthy of his nest, for he has begun bringing choice bits of grass in for his building project. It is a sweet process, one to which I can recently relate. I took great joy in seeking out safe, stylish, affordable necessities for my own baby's room; why should a bird do less? But all may not be well on the sparrow's home front. Just yesterday when the sparrow was out, I saw a tufted titmouse announce his presence at the house and barge in. He didn't stay long, but I wonder whether there will be a territory battle. I'd put my money on the sparrow - stocky and already brown, he seems like the sort of fellow who's not afraid to fight dirty. And as much as I'd like to witness the growth of tiny titmice, the sparrow was there first and I'll help him however I can.
We've got a suet feeder in the back, but the sparrows only eat the crumbs dropped from it by the chickadees and woodpeckers. I think I will clean out my hairbrush and the lint trap in the dryer today; I have a mesh bag just waiting to be hung from the clothesline and stuffed with bird-nest potential. And I know I have some fabric ribbon left over from decorating our nursery. It's romantic to think that some of my hair may end up as part of a bird's nest, but somehow I find an even sweeter satisfaction in the thought that shreds of the very same green ribbon that holds back the curtains in our son's room may help form a safe place for another sort of baby altogether.
Spring will arrive with a flutter of wings soon enough. I look forward to teaching my son about birds and trees and rocks and clouds, for these things are as thrilling to me as texture, sound, and color are to him now. He will grow along with sparrow chicks this year, gaining strength and independence in small ways every day. We must cherish the small things, like first steps, first teeth, and rolling over, or like bugs and sticks and feathers; we must actively seek them out, for these are the rudiments of adventure, and what is the world for if not for exploring?
Monday, February 1, 2010
Our backyard neighbor has cleared most of the wilderness behind our yard, so there's not much shelter left for birds and other creatures. I took my 5-month-old son out back today to check on the suet feeder. As soon as I knelt down to his level for a kiss, I saw a beautiful redtail swirling over our yard. Any birds back there now would be easy targets. Anyway, I narrated to the baby what the bird was doing. "Look, he's flying in circles over the yard to get higher. Oh, his legs are hanging down..." And then the hawk evacuated its bowels 50 feet in the air and I watched it all splatter down onto one of the trees in our yard. I guess that is one way to get a kid interested in nature!