The Bird

J. Scott Smith

I was sitting on my step a while ago watching the goings-on of the animals in the back yard. The dog was engaged in a fast and furious pursuit of his tail, and the cat seemed quite intent on catching a butterfly that was busy fluttering from the top of one long blade of grass to another. Even though both dog and cat were having quite a go at it, I must say that the tail and the butterfly appeared to have the upper hand.

A squirrel was perched about three limbs high in a little oak tree down by the edge of the woods. He was propped up on his hind feet sunning himself, with his tail hitched up over his head and looking for all the world like a prince in plumage at the royal ball. He, too, was watching the dog and the cat.

The afternoon sun cast a warm glance over the lot of us, and each was content to laze the rest of the day away pursuing his chosen activity, with the possible exception of the tail and the butterfly, who I'm certain would have been more than happy if their tormentors would have sought other interests.

I spent quite some time watching all this nonsense, until I noticed a small bird making regular trips from somewhere past the fence, which was over on one side of the yard, across to the old shed on the other. On every trip to the shed she was carrying in her beak a bit of what appeared to be grass, and on every trip back across the fence she was carrying nothing. I knew right away what she was doing, and during one of her trips away from the shed I snuck over to have a look. Judging from the location where she entered the shed, I knew that it had to be somewhere in the eaves near the back window, and that is precisely where I found it: a small clump of grass ( and twigs that was the beginning of what I was certain would become the avian equivalent of a two bedroom townhouse.

I hurried back to the step, not wanting to cause the poor bird any distress at knowing I had discovered her nest. There I sat until shortly after dusk and watched as she rushed back and forth, unrelenting in her efforts to complete her home. The dog and the cat had long since given up their endeavors, the dog having settled at my feet and fallen fast asleep, while the cat had disappeared inside, apparently abandoning butterflies in favor of the more easily captured household insects. The squirrel, too, had gone, having vanished into the woods behind the house. But the bird continued working until, just before darkfall, she left the shed one last time, flew over to the feeder for a dinner of sunflower seeds and thistle, and disappeared into the top of the oak tree where the squirrel had been. At which time I roused the dog from my feet, got up from the step and moved indoors.

As the night wore on I couldn't help but wonder about the bird. What kind of a bird was she? How long had she been living in my back yard? Why did she choose to build her nest in the shed? How many eggs would she lay? The fact that I lived so close to the creature and yet knew so little about her disturbed me, and I determined to spend a little time every day learning more about the bird.

The next morning I rose early. The sun was just beginning to creep over the horizon, and while the rest of the world dreamt I was busy preparing to spend the day fulfilling my goal: meeting my newly found feathered friend. First on the list was food; waffles, hash browns and a glass of juice for myself, and for the bird I prepared bread crumbs, nuts, seeds and some wild berries I had picked from the other side of the fence. Second came accommodations; a chair strategically placed near the shed, a jug of juice, a box of crackers and a book to read; as for the bird, I figured she could share with me any of these or else provide her own. Last, and probably most important, was atmosphere; a portable stereo and a tape recording of the calls of some common birds. I hoped none of the common bird calls belonged to any of the common enemies of my bird-friend.

For two days I sat in my strategically placed chair near the old shed, eating, drinking and reading my book in my carefully selected atmosphere, and observed the bird. She did not seem to appreciate the placement of my chair, nor my choice of food, literature and atmosphere, and took great pains to avoid flying too close to me. Still, by the middle of the second day she was coming close enough to accept the bread crumbs and such that I tossed on the ground, so long as I tossed them far enough.

Towards the end of the second day I surmised she had finished the nest since she was no longer bringing building materials to the shed. By the end of the third day she was making very few flights out of the shed, only an occasional foray to fetch the food I continued to toss on the ground. After eating her fill she would fly straight back to the nest in the eaves of the shed.

The bird's withdrawal to the shed was interfering with my friendly intentions, and my strategically placed chair was now most noticably strategically out of place. I was forced to alter my stratagem and move my chair inside the shed.

The bird was not happy. Nor was I; the shed was dimly lit, dusty and didn't smell very much like a place in which I wanted to spend any length of time. Why she would have chosen such a place to raise a family I will never know. I settled into my chair and turned my attention to my book, hoping that by remaining still and quiet the bird would sense that I meant her no harm. She seemed to appreciate the fact that I was no longer ranting and raving about the conditions of her habitat and, once all the commotion was over with, was back in her nest, peering over the edge of it, watching as I sipped my juice and turned the pages in my book.

At first she would not leave the nest while I was in the shed. She would wait until I left and then rush over to the feeder, gorge herself, and then return immediately to the shed. After I had spent a couple of days with her she began to take a little longer at the feeder, though never more than a minute or so, and still not until I had left the shed. We went on this way for over a week with the bird never quite accepting my presence as normal, but did develop a sort of tolerance for each other based mostly on ignorance. She ignored the noise I made and the sunflower seeds I tossed at her. I ignored the little game she had learned of sneaking across the ceiling joists to a spot directly above my head and dropping sunflower seeds in my juice. We had, it seemed, achieved a level of friendship where it was acceptable to have fun with each other, but the bird still did not trust me.

I began to know the bird nearly as well as a husband knows his wife. She liked both thistle and sunflower seeds; the thistle to eat and the sunflower seeds to drop in my juice. She didn't care for bread crumbs and berries all that much, and absolutely hated pizza. French fries, on the other hand, were perfectly acceptable, with or without ketchup. She would only leave the shed if I had already left, and then only for a minute. She would only eat from the feeder if she was sitting on the rail on the left side. She slept with her head tucked under her right wing; always the right, never the left.

And she began to know me. That I drink lots of orange juice and eat saltine crackers. That I fall asleep if I read too long. That I always came out shortly after sunrise and again right before sundown to talk to her. That if she dropped sunflower seeds in my hair, or better yet my juice, she would get a free meal because I would throw more thistle and sunflower seeds at her. That I, too, like French fries, with or without ketchup.

But for all of this knowing and understanding of each other, I still did not know how many eggs were in the nest. I had tried to sneak back into the shed while she was at the feeder, but each time she would spot me and hustle back to the nest before I was even in the door. On the occasions when she would leave the nest and I was already inside the shed, which was only when she wanted to drop things on me, she would dart back into the nest at the slightest hint of movement on my part. It seemed the number of eggs was to remain a mystery.

Then it came to me. I took the handle out of an old broom and taped a small mirror to the end of it, tipped at an angle so I could use it to see around corners. The end result looked remarkably similar to a dentist's mirror.

Armed with my spy equipment, I took up my usual position in the shed. Slowly I raised the mirror up and leaned it against the same ceiling joist that the bird used on her bombing runs, then slid it towards the nest till it was close enough that I could see the nest directly from the top. This was not a good idea, because whenever the bird looked up she saw me looking down at her and would get rather upset. I rotated the mirror so she couldn't see into it, the plan being to turn it back and take a look the next time she decided to take a walk across the joist.

I sat back in the chair, closed my eyes, and tried to look asleep. By ignoring my periscope and acting as if everything was normal I hoped to lure the bird out of the nest and onto the joist, and once she was engrossed in dropping seeds into my orange juice I would turn the mirror and have a look in the nest.

I didn't have long to wait. My guess would be ten minutes, tops. I opened my right eye about halfway and watched her move across the joist. She stopped next to the broom handle, gave it a cursory inspection, cocked her head to the left a time or two, and then hopped past it, her feet barely on the edge of the joist; a truly spectacular performance that would have put any high-wire act to shame. When she reached the spot just over my head she started, as I had expected, to zero in on my orange juice.

My right hand had been resting on the broom handle and, using my thumb and forefinger, I began to turn the mirror. I'm not sure if the bird saw the mirror turning or if she felt the broom handle vibrating against the joist, but all of a sudden she let out a shriek and began furiously thrashing her wings in a frantic effort to return to her nest. All of which startled me so badly that I nearly jumped out of my chair. Her motility was exceptional, resulting in shower of debris from off the top of the joists. I was, quite literally, under a barage of sunflower seeds and common shed filth. Somehow, in the midst of it all, I managed to get the mirror turned far enough around to get a glimpse inside the nest.

Two eggs. I couldn't tell for sure, but they appeared to be a light brown color, almost white, with a few dark speckles here and there, and about the size of a marble; it was difficult to tell since it was rather dark in the shed, especially up in the eaves. There were two eggs, though, of this I am absolutely certain.

Having satisfied my curiosity as to the number of offspring to be expected, not to mention having scared the dickens out of both myself and the bird, I decided to abandon my post within the shed and wait till the hatchlings arrived. I did not want my feathered friend to think I was featherheaded. I am sure she was quite close to this conclusion anyway, and needed no further evidence from me, so I packed up my accommodations and atmosphere; strategically placed chair, jug of juice, box of crackers, book, portable stereo, tape recording of the calls of some common birds, and giant dental mirror; and moved back into the house to await the arrival of the children.

As I was leaving I heard a small cry, and when I looked over my shoulder I swear I could see tears in the eyes of the bird. I turned quickly and hurried out the door.

For several days I did not venture near the shed. I had never seen a bird cry before and was disgusted with myself for having left my friend in her time of need. The knife of guilt was buried to the hilt and the bird, my friend, seemed to find extreme pleasure in twisting the blade. It became clear she was not happy unless in the company of a juice-drinking, cracker-crunching, book-reading, seed-throwing connoisseur of common bird calls whom she could reduce to a pile of sunflower seed rubble. I wasn't very happy either. I had, it seems, become attached to our Eighth Air Force fantasy and missed countering the aerial attacks of the avian bomber with the compulsory barrage of thistle and sunflower flak.

Compromise. I decided to plant a small garden close to the shed. Near enough to keep my friend company, yet far enough away to preclude the possibility of unduly disturbing the mother-to-be. A distance which, after much study and thought, I concluded to be exactly six feet.

My yard became instantly and famously popular with the local wildlife, and as is often the case with gardening I had in effect created a wild animal's smorgasbord. The domestic animals weren't much help either. Seeds were no sooner in the ground when along would come the prince in plumage, the tail tormentor or the butterfly botherer and proceed to puree the fruits of my labor. The pie tins I had hung at the end of the rows became the resting places of the local fowl as they devoured my garden, and the various four-legged animals were not the least bit intimidated. The cat in particular was not impressed with my efforts. I know this to be true, having caught him once using one of the tins as a mirror.

A screaming, broom waving, freaked-out human garners much more respect.

My yard became instantly and famously unpopular with the local wildlife. The domestic animals, on the other hand, were accustomed to such maniacal demonstrations and refused to be swayed by the might of the broom. Though I continually battered them with sticks and stones and the business end of a broom, they were incessant in their endeavors. Mr. Waring would have been proud of them.

Sometime during the course of my battle with the domestic and not-so-domestic animals my friend the fowl became a parent. I'm not sure of the exact date and time, but I do recall the day I heard baby bird voices emanating from the shed. I grabbed the giant dental instrument and rushed for the shed. True to the old adage "Fools rush in...", I tripped on the step, plummeted through the door, crashed to the floor and slid headlong into the wall under the workbench. The mirror had become detached from the broom handle and was resting against a can of paint off to my right. I looked at the mirror. My reflection looked back. We both looked very foolish.

My stock in intelligence lost a few more points when, in the process of picking myself up off the floor, I banged my head on the bottom of the workbench, jumped back, hung my foot on a piece of wire and fell backwards into the galvanized garbage can in the corner. In that moment I wondered for what purpose I had endured over a decade of higher education.

I freed myself from Jaws, rebuilt my periscope and had a look in the nest. What a sight! Two huge, gaping mouths emitting a noise that seemed to belie the tiny bodies attached to them. I was fascinated as I watched, the mouths stretching open in anticipation of the culinary delights to be placed into them by their...

Mother! She swooped through the open window with dinner dangling from her beak and noticed the mirror hovering over her youngsters. She let out a shriek and began circling the inside of the shed, detouring briefly to peck at the mirror and it's owner. She continued in this manner for several seconds, shrieking and pecking, dinner hanging from her beak the entire time and not one bit of it falling to the floor, until I finally got the message and, with periscope in hand, exited the shed.

I had soon traded in the periscope for my crowd dispersal unit, as once again I was busy beating the animals out of the garden. Fear of God they had; fear of man and broom they did not. No sooner would I have the dog cleared out of the potatoes than the cat would be after the tomatoes, and by the time I had him run off the squirrel would be after the beans. I was convinced there was nothing on or anywhere near the earth that could keep the Waring trio out of my vegetables.

When all else fails, eat.

I was enjoying a lunch of roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, butter beans, salad and cornbread when I happened to look out the window. What I saw was the most amazing thing; the bird was out of the nest and, with twig in beak, was carrying on where I had left off. She was flitting from dog to squirrel to cat, beating each over the head with wings and twig. All told, her efforts met with greater success than mine.

I sat and watched this spectacle for several minutes. I was totally engrossed with her determination to see that no harm befell my garden. Why she would go to such lengths toward the preservation of my spot of earth I could not fathom. Vanity being what it is in most human beings, I briefly assumed my friend to be repaying the kindnesses shown to her by myself in the form of free thistle, sunflower seeds and target practice. I soon learned the real reason.

Just as soon as the threesome had been expelled from the garden, my friend, companion and playmate of the past few weeks, touched down square on top of a tomato and proceeded to peck it to pieces! So much for the vanity of humanity. Score one for the sanity of Mother Nature; food is food.

I was three steps from the table and heading towards riot control when this thought crossed my mind: The bird is doing a much better job of ensuring the safety of the garden, so I will let her have her fill of whatever she pleases as payment for her help. Sure, why not? That way I can get back to the matter at hand: eating.

I should have had a few words with my security gaurd. Her idea of eating was to take a peck of this and a peck of that. While I was endeavoring to grow a garden worth picking, she was busy demonstrating that it was already a garden worth pecking. So much for painting stills of the harvest.

All this time I had seen nothing of the young ones, though I often heard noises within the shed. Since that initial fiasco with Jaws and the periscope I had not dared to venture into the sacred territory of the bird. As well guarded as the garden was, it was the land of freedom compared to the close scrutiny given the shed by the feathered terrorist. Myself or any other creature passing within two feet of the window or door would meet with the screaming fury of the avian demon. As often as not, the intruder would come away bleeding in a spot or two, the direct result of the pecking and clawing and feather-flogging administered by Bonzai Bird.

They say that tragedy strikes when you least expect it. They also say, "Live by the sword, die by the sword." In this case, the sword was the lightning-quick claw of the butterfly botherer. The bird made one pass too many at the head of the felion farmer during one of his daily visitations of the garden plot. Faster than you could say your own name, the cat reached up and snatched my buddy out of the air. With not even a sound the bird was gone, hanging lifeless from the jaws of the murderous monster.

I stared in disbelief, unable to move. My heart rushed to the rescue of my friend, but my feet in their terror refused to follow. I tried to get my throat to come to the aid of my gaping mouth, but the effort was in vain. My friend was gone. Never again would I see her patrolling the garden. Never again would I hear her shrill screams as someone approached too close to her nest. Never again.

Tears fell from my eyes to the ground as if to keep company my fallen friend.

I reclaimed the battered body of my companion from the jaws of her destiny and placed her in a grave near the spot where she had fallen. I stood there over the final resting place of a true friend feeling for the first time the frailty of life, and at once understood if only a little the grief of a parent for a lost child. I said a prayer for the memory of my once and cherished companion.

Now I have none but the children. They keep me busy all day, and keep me from grieving long over their loss. It is not easy being Mother to another species, but it is even more difficult to explain to the young ones the fate of their real mother. I think they know, even though I do not speak the language well enough to be certain. I only hope they can understand that I am doing my best to raise them as true birds should be raised.

They will soon be grown and will leave me to live lives of their own. But who knows, perhaps someday I will be sitting on my back step and see a bird flying back and forth from somewhere across the fence and the old shed. If this bird does not appreciate the placement of my chair, nor my choice of food, literature and atmosphere, and takes great pains to avoid flying too close to me; if this bird likes French fries, with or without ketchup; if this bird has Eighth Air Force fantasies; if all these things are true, then I will remember my friend and know that her children have returned.

September 1986
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