Sunday, June 5, 2016

bird brains: how do they do it?

Umbrellas walk by
with people hanging on
below


What could be better.

All week I’ve been keeping an eye on a bird nest down by the river. It is well hidden, small and tidy, on the ground, a deep bowl of woven dry grass tucked into dry grass. Green leaves and a feathery branch of evergreen hang over it. I would never have known it was there but for a bird flying out of that area of brush every day as I approached. She flies so swiftly straight out and away that I cannot get a good look at her, do not know what kind of bird she is. She seems small, dark, but not too dark, maybe with some white on the tail feathers: an impression of long tail feathers flashing white, disappearing across the river. Her action made me curious, so I investigated and found the nest on the leading edge of a piece of ground that used to be at the top of the riverbank. It slid down one spring during the annual rights of erosion. The nest is just up the bank from the trail I walk, about waist high and an arm’s length away. Once I found it, I hurried away, not wanting to disturb, but the next day, or maybe the day after, I leaned in, drew back the canopy of leaves, took a peek inside. I saw blue eggs with brown spots.


It then became my habit to take a quick peek every time I passed by. Soon the eggs were gone, replaced with spent quids of tobacco with beaks. I don’t mean to be cruel; that is the impression received. The eggs are beautiful, then they crack.


Last year, the bird’s nest that caught my eye was tucked into a rafter of the upper deck on the north side of the cabin. It was a robin’s nest, and you may remember that I became somewhat attached to the hatchlings, Grubbs, Stubbs, William, and Fredericka. After all, they were born practically in my house. I worried a bit the day the young birds left the nest—barely able to fly it seemed to me—but I had not worried before then. They seemed safe and snug in their nest under the rafters with mama and papa bird coming and going, as I could well see, with all kinds of whatever to spit up into their little birds’ throats. This year, that nest is vacant, but now, this nest on the ground with these little quids of tobacco. It’s not like I am the only leadfoot traipsing about. There’s Josie and deer and coyotes. Skunk, porcupine, fishers. I’m pretty sure a wolf. My neighbor has seen bears. That the nest might get stepped on? That something higher up the bank get knocked loose and fall on it? Or maybe even the river rising? And overhead—eagles, hawks, turkey vultures. I understand, of course, that there are bird nests everywhere, in the most likely and unlikely of places, and the birds know what they are doing, certainly, and then there’s the law of the wild and all that, but when you see some very ugly baby birds and realize their brains must be no bigger than a speck of dust and there they are, just there on the ground, some kind of weird emotion kicks in.

On Friday, the mother bird did not fly off the nest as I approached; she was not there, and her absence, at that moment, causing such a break in routine, worried me.

On Saturday, I was out at the farmers market most of the day and anyway it rained all day and by evening the mosquitoes were thick. There would be no walk along the river. And last night more rain, more mosquitoes, and the riverbank will be slick with red mud. A walk I do not want to take. But, anyway, and of course, anyway, I need not worry, right? Plenty of birdly ancestors have survived doing much the same thing as this little group by the riveside, only now I’ve seen them, so now I’m interested, and maybe just a bit ridiculously worried. But only a bit.