SARAH SMILEY

Betraying nesting birds with addition of family dog

Posted Aug. 25, 2012, at 12:27 p.m.
Sarah Smiley
Sarah Smiley

Last year, a robin made her nest on a beam directly outside our kitchen window. It was a wonderful surprise for us — the miracle of life happening within view of our dinner table — but still, I couldn’t help but marvel at the mother’s bravery. Had she not seen the way my three boys behave outside? How they hit baseballs into the shrubbery and sometimes at the windows?

During the few weeks the robin shared our back window, I felt a peculiar connection with her. When she looked at me with her black, beady little bird eyes, I knew she was staring right into my soul, and, of course, judging me. What else do fellow mothers do?

The mother bird flew back and forth, busily bringing fresh worms to her children while I banged my head on the refrigerator door and wondered why my family had to eat dinner … again.

The mother robin kept her nest tidy. I knew this because I had seen her receive and carry away her babies’ excrement. My kitchen had muddy floors and dishes piled several meals thick in the sink.

Every morning, the first thing I did when I came downstairs was check on the mother and her family. She would stare at me and then sit on her younglings’ sparsely feathered heads. I grew to love her, and when the babies finally flew away, I shared the mother’s excitement and sadness. I missed the birds when the mother and her partner left the nest. Must have moved to The Villages, I thought.

Then, a few weeks later, they built a new home on the same beam. This mother robin was just showing off now. Completely raising two broods in one summer? I mean, who has the energy for that?

I watched a second set of fledgling birds get their wings and leave the nest. Fall came. Snow fell on the beam where the nest once sat. And by this June, the only thing to look at outside the kitchen window was the dripping water from the air conditioner.

Then, one day in July, a new nest appeared. The mother was back. And I had terrible news for her: since last summer, we had gotten a dog. A bird dog.

Sparky is a handsome liver and white hunter who loves nothing more than to chase ducks at the lake. He will swim for miles and never tire, so that I have to go in my kayak and fetch him. Over and over again, Sparky tries to get a duck, and he always fails. The ducks taunt him and lead him in circles, then they fly away, and Sparky and I are left in the middle of the lake.

If Sparky could talk, I know he’d especially curse when he goes after loons, massive fowl with red eyes and a haunting call. Sparky jumps in after them, and they calmly wait until he is a few feet away. Then they do their great disappearing act, the most confounding of them all for Sparky: the loons go under water and don’t come back up until they are many yards away.

So you can imagine Sparky’s perceived good fortune when one day he found a nest of captive, chirping birds directly above our back porch. He whimpered and danced on his back feet, eager to catch a glimpse of the mother and her babies. The mother would peer down at him, and if I was a betting person, my money was on her. She glared at Sparky with the same soul-searing eyes with which she had glared at me. (And boy did she glare at me now that I was raising a bird dog.) I knew she would not think twice about dive bombing our dog if he got legitimately close.

The baby birds would soon fledge. I knew because they were making more noise, fighting for space in the nest, and requiring the mother to bring worms every half hour. I looked out the window often, hoping to see one of the babies fly.

Last week, I was cooking dinner for a Dinner with the Smileys guests (Hint: he has the MLB career record for most pinch-hit home runs), when I heard frantic chirping outside. My heart raced because I knew: Sparky had gotten one of the baby birds.

I ran outside and Sparky came to me, offering the catch like a good hunting dog should. The baby was still alive and not hurt, but she was playing dead. The mother bird flitted back and forth between the trees in our backyard, and she was making an awful, heart-wrenching cry. Her baby was not safe; my dog and I were to blame.

I shooed Sparky inside and shut the door. He looked at me through the glass like, “Um, I thought we were going to eat that?” The baby bird flopped around on the porch, her wings beating erratically, as if they were on springs. The mother bird continued to cry and swoop. I called out to her: “I’m going to help you.” Then I picked up the quivering bird and set him on the other side of our fence. I went inside so the mother could tend to her baby. Within 20 minutes, they both were gone. The nest was empty.

At dusk, I can still hear the mother’s calls, tending to her babies in neighboring bushes. I know what she’s saying to me: “you traitor.” I doubt she will nest on our porch again, and I am sad.

But, well, I’m especially sad for the ducks. Yesterday, the chase was just a game. Today, Sparky has had the taste of feathers.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at www.Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.

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