February 17, 2019

Land of Cowbirds

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

There are 22 birdhouses in various trees around and about this farm.  That doesn’t include the purple martin house in the orchard or the wood duck box in the north pond.  (I call it a wood duck box but ringnecks moved in.)  I made the houses and put them up, not just because I love (most) birds but because I hate bugs.  So every spring I put the stepladder in the wood cart, hitch it to the crawler and make a big circuit around this farm, cleaning bird boxes.

I look forward to it.  It’s an indisputable sign of spring and I finally satisfy my curiosity about which boxes were full with which birds.  Sure, for some boxes I know the answer having seen the birds coming and going last year.  But some birdhouses are in remote locations.  I slap another coat of linseed oil on each house, repair the roofs as necessary and even move them if they’ve been empty for three years in a row.

It turns out that birds are picky.  I can forgive them.  So am I.  They want a southern facing doorway, proximity to water and they don’t seem to care for oak trees.  I don’t know why.  Perhaps it’s the squirrels.  Some birds are social, gregarious and noisy.  Others are shy and retiring.  Some you hear but seldom see.  Ovenbirds, for example.

It gets me thinking.  Birds are like people.  There are obnoxious foreigners, tourists, intent on taking everything over, claiming it as their own.  That would be the starlings.  When we moved in, I put the glass back in the barn, intent on depriving the starlings of their nesting spots inside.  Further, I quickly grew sick of cleaning my tractors.  You bet, I make sure all my birdhouses have holes too small for starlings.

Swallows are Olympic athletes, aerial dancers and acrobats, Cirque de Soleil without the safety nets.  I’m filled with awe watching them.  They make their dazzling displays look so easy.  Just their short pirouettes as they turn into the wind and alight are enough to leave me gaping in admiration.  I’d love to be that graceful.  Add to all that their voracious appetite for bugs and I’m head over heels in love.

I’m standing atop a 12-foot stepladder set up in the wood cart, cleaning a bluebird nest from a box as I think about this.  The wood cart lends a planar surface to steady the ladder in addition to supplying another two feet of elevation.  Plus there’s the wire, tools, paintbrush and linseed oil that I bring along.  The bulldozer’s blade is down.  You just can’t beat that as a parking brake.  The spring sunshine warms my shoulders as I work.

It’s definitely a bluebird nest in this box.  That’s okay.  I love bluebirds, too.  They’re the respectable citizens.  With their orange-russet waistcoats they embody dignity.  They judge the conduct of others, ensuring that it’s proper, looking down with pity at ground-hugging humanity as we walk by in the mornings.  They eye our dogs with complete disapproval, spinning, diving and pecking them if they come too close to their nesting trees.

In another box, it looks as though downy woodpeckers raised their young.  “Wow!” I mutter, picking out black and white feathers and cleaning mushroom caps from the bottom.  Woodpeckers are the preachers of the bird world, strutting up and down trees, dressed mostly in black with white collars, banging their pulpits, demanding attention and calling for the elimination of grubs.

It takes all day to clean two dozen bird houses, oiling and repairing them as well.  All except two were occupied.  I moved those.  I’m tired by the time I reach the last.  But I can see that I’m just in time.  A pair of bluebirds is in the apple tree above the box as I work.  Hotel guests tired after a long journey, they chirp impatiently to each other, waiting for the maid to finish.  The sun is far in the west.  I notice that tree swallows used this house last year when a noise distracts me.  I’m several hundred feet from Tay Road.  I look over just in time to see a pickup truck speed off.  A tire is still rolling down the bank beside the trash they dumped on our field.

I nod to the bluebirds and climb wearily back down the stepladder.  Then I drive over to pick up the mess.

There’s a filthy mattress with a broken box spring, five old tires and a ripped trash bag.  I check.  There’s nothing identifying in the bag.  I load the garbage on the wood cart, reflecting just what sort of person does something like this:  Drives to a deserted section of country road in the evening, imagines that no one sees them and throws their unwanted responsibilities out, making them somebody else’s problems in the process.

“Cowbirds!” I exclaim.  “That’s what those people are.”

I shake my head in lament.  I amused myself all day imagining birds as people.  It’s sad to realize people can act like birds.