redux: a mutation of thrushes

This post, from 2014, reminds me that the robins regularly nested nearby,  on the beam across our patio or once in the rose canes by the front door. Then in 2017, the cat Winter came to live with us. He lurks on the beam and so far the robins have avoided it. And the year before he came, a weasel darted across the beam and ate the eggs. So maybe Winter isn’t entirely to blame for this fairly recent aversion on the part of the robins. But yesterday John was looking out at the big fir between the house and the printshop and he said he thought the robins must have a nest there. We couldn’t see but we could see two robins taking turns leaving and returning. When we stood under the boughs, sure enough we could see the mossy nest tucked into a crotch of branches.

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I looked in An Exaltation of Larks for the collective noun for robins. There are so many of them this year, singing, playing chicken on the side of the highway (and these must be males, flying up at the last minute…), and following me in the garden, ready to plunge their beaks into the newly-dug soil for worms. And there’s isn’t one. The closest is “a Mutacyon of threstyllys” from the Porkington MS, a mid-15th century miscellany of poetry and prose now held in the National Library of Wales.  The term appears to come from the belief that thrushes grow new legs at ten years of age and cast their old ones aside.

Last year, in July, I wrote a series of posts about the robins nesting on the cedar beam across our patio. It was the first time they’d nested in that particular spot, though we’ve watched robins build on an elbow of drainpipe on our printshop, in an angle of grapevine climbing our southern wall, and — three times! — in a willow now completely claimed by clematis above the west-facing deck. One year we watched three robins learn to fly and it echoed the passage of our own children away from home. It was very sweet to see the parents and two of the young all in a fir tree calling to the remaining nestling until, whoosh, it flew clumsily from the nest to join them. Every time I see this, I wish for wings myself. Imagine just…well, flying. Gliding away from the nest on wings you never knew you had, the whole world opening.

We were away for four days last week and when we returned, there was a nest in exactly the same place on the beam. No sign of robins but a nest, newly made. And by yesterday, there was a female robin tucked into it — so I’m assuming she’s incubating eggs. The literature talks about “nest fidelity” — the willingness of robins to return to locations and even reuse the same nests. Ours have never reused a nest but maybe that’s because we occasionally remove them (the one on the beam last year) or else the clematis smothered the opening where a bird might enter the cool interior of the willow.

This year, the female is not as skittish as last July. She remains on the nest while I’m watering. I put a saucer of worms on the ground below the nest and went off to do something else. When I passed that way again, I noticed that all the worms had been eaten. So I bet she remembers that I fed her last year too.

I think of Emily Dickinson:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops — at all –

And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me.

Every year the same things happen. I begin the tomato seeds. I wait for the first ripe fruit. Baskets of sun-warmed tomatoes give me such pleasure that I forget I’ve done this for nearly 30 years. And the robins, with their echo of our own life, the tune without the words : a nest,  patience, the helpless young growing to maturity in the time it takes to close my eyes, then open them.

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“The days of the dawn chorus are nearly upon us.”

This morning I opened the back door to hang out some pillowcases and heard robin song. I’ve noticed birds everywhere these days. Yellow-rumped warblers, sapsuckers, chickadees checking out the houses, a high crowd of violet-green swallows above the garden yesterday when we were taking a break from various chores, hummingbirds in the red currant, and of course robins. They’ve been around for ages but I haven’t heard their chorus yet. We did hear Swainson’s thrushes two weeks ago when it was warm enough to have the window open in the very early morning.

The robins have always nested around our house, sometimes in an elbow of grapevine, sometimes in the crotch of a rose by the front door, and often on a beam that carries wisteria across the patio. We’ve watched the couples build their nests, watched them sitting on the eggs, and even watched the young fledge. One year the nest was a little higher than I am—I’m 5’6″—and I kept a sort of diary of the progress of its construction and what happened after. At one point I held a camera over the next when the parents were off in search of worms and this is what I saw:

open

Only one of those fledged. (And you can see a little dead bird on the left.) A few years ago the robin couple built a nest on the beam and there were eggs, then tiny nestlings (again, the camera held from high so a blurry image):

one egg

I was looking forward to watching the whole cycle again but a weasel raced along the beam and that was the end of that story. The parents were briefly distraught and then began a nest somewhere far from the house. I’m sorry not to see the nests so close but on the other hand, we have a cat now who likes to recline on that beam, and I’ve heard the weasel in the night, hunting on the roof, so it’s better than the robins find a safer location.

I sit at my desk, thinking about the way we try to live our lives in the best possible way. We try to raise children who are ethical and purposeful and who can survive outside the nest (though we hope that they will also remember the nest and the parents who fed them tirelessly while they opened their mouths to the sky). We try to do the right thing for the earth, whatever that might be. (I suspect it’s too late but that’s another topic.) And daily, I try to record what I love, what hurts me, what I am puzzled by, or what I hope for.

The days of the dawn chorus are nearly upon us. I have been very lucky, I think, to see robin eggs in a nest, tiny nestlings, those gawky open mouths. I’ve seen a weasel at my door, once, standing up and looking in at me as I sewed in my rocking chair by the fire, and again, on the stoop where I hang out laundry. I think of Annie Dillard’s essay, “Living Like Weasels”, and realize that in some ways we too can live close to our instincts, if we are lucky and the light is right:

We could, you know. We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience–even of silence–by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn’t “attack” anything; a weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity.

I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.

laundry stoop

the thing with feathers

It’s been a long grey week. The rain, the news of the British referendum, the aftermath of the murders in various parts of the world (that ask us again and again to think how we are implicated, whether our silence serves or distracts or ignores), our radio and television airwaves filled with the noise of that awful man south of the border, a more personal sorrow, and the images of fires in California, flooding in many places: you wonder where to place your hope, if you have any left.
This morning, around 6, I woke to light. Not just morning light but a sky without clouds. Blue as a book of hours. In the trees, a pair of western tanagers, so brilliantly coloured that I wondered (as I do every time I see them), why they chose our green landscape for a summer home. They spend their winters in Central America and find their way here, to the bigleaf maples below the house (I think that’s where they nest; they always come from, and head back, to those trees). And listening to a recording just now of their call, I realize that’s what I’ve been hearing the last few mornings. So maybe their young have fledged and they are teaching them about territory, food sources (elderberries, salmonberries, huckleberries…), and dangers.
And when I got up and came down to my desk, I watched the robins gliding in and out of the nest just beyond my vision, around the corner of the house, tucked into an elbow of grapevine. I’ve been thinking that the young must be about ready to fly but I’ve stayed away from the nest out of superstition. (The last robin nest we were watching with hope was raided by a weasel…) But I did go this morning, just to see, and yes, there are at least two young’uns. When they saw me coming, they quickly hid. But I waited and was rewarded with the sight of two eager beaks poking over the side of the nest, while the parents watched from the arbutus. Here they are, just barely visible. Like hope.
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“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
                           –Emily Dickinson

“If we return to the old home as to a nest”

I’ve been hard at work on an essay about my father’s family and the discoveries I made on a recent trip to Alberta. It’s a sad process, in a way. I think of them in their bleak house in Drumheller with its legacy of death and illness — the Spanish flu, diphtheria. The graves in the nearby cemetery, the marked ones and the unmarked. In the photographs I’ve been studying, there are blurry moments when I suspect I’m seeing ghosts. A hat on a chair. A dog watching an empty road, as though in anticipation. But those ghosts are also my ghosts so it’s work I need to do.

This morning I walked out to the garden to pick some kale for my morning smoothie and heard robin song. It was coming from the huge crabapple tree, given us 35 years ago by John’s mother; it’s now in full bloom. It’s so beautiful that you don’t even notice that the top branches were broken last fall by a bear. If you’re not familiar with this tree, you see only the deep pink blossoms, alive with bees and robins, and you don’t know that the fruit is small and scabby. And you won’t know that Vera Grafton once climbed its lower branches to gather fruit for jelly. That was the visit when she told me that her father had courted her mother by canoe, across Georgia Strait. Her mother lived in Nanaimo and her father was a member of the Shishalth Nation. How many years ago was that? Vera was in her 80s, I believe, when she picked the crabapples; and that was in 1997 or 1998. So think back, back, to the early days of the 20th century.

Coming back from the garden, I saw one robin fly to the nest under the eaves by the side porch and another quickly settle itself on the nest. This is the tree where they wait for the exchange to take place:

nest (2).JPG

This nest site is not the best place from our perspective. The side porch is where the woodbox is and on weekends like this one — wet and cool — we still use our woodstove. When we left for Alberta, there was nest building in an elbow of grapevine on the south side of the house. Dry grass, moss, lichens, small twigs. Then returning last week, I looked up as I was bringing in stuff from the car and there was a almost-completed nest under the eaves by the porch. No sign of the builders but next morning one of them at least was back at work. And we’re bringing wood in the front door, enough for one fire at a time. But watching the robins is worth a little inconvenience. Some years three clutches of young have fledged from this location. I often wonder if each year’s parents are the original parents or else subsequent generations who return and return and return. The song returns, the blossoms return, and that bear will return (alas).

nest (1).JPG

We have pleasure to look forward to over the next few weeks. The sound of chicks, then the occasional glimpse of them — or their open beaks! — as the parents work to keep them fed. The diligence of the parents as they swoop in and out with worms and other delicacies. And if we’re lucky, the sight of the young leaving the nest, flapping ungracefully on their first flight, often careening briefly through the air and landing in the lilacs. The parents scold and encourage. Some mornings we’ll see the family entire in the blue air as the young literally exercise their wings and learn to feed themselves.

Of course by now you will know that I am talking about my own family == three children raised in our homemade house, nurtured and loved, and coaxed easily from the nest with every hope for their long survival. Oh, and their return! “So there is also an alas in this song of tenderness. If we return to the old home as to a nest, it is because memories are dreams, because the home of other days has become a great image of lost intimacy.” — from Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, with thanks to Gaston Bachelard.

There are ghosts, and ghosts. The blurry moments in the old photographs of my grandparents’ home in Drumheller as a funeral is recorded or a young boy — my father — rides his tricycle over the hard earth. The scratchy signature of my grandmother’s first husband on a petition to Ottawa, begging to be allowed to stay in the shack he’d built on land he didn’t own. It’s all mine, if I can only record it and commemorate it in all its difficult details.

a mutation of thrushes

I looked in An Exaltation of Larks for the collective noun for robins. There are so many of them this year, singing, playing chicken on the side of the highway (and these must be males, flying up at the last minute…), and following me in the garden, ready to plunge their beaks into the newly-dug soil for worms. And there’s isn’t one. The closest is “a Mutacyon of threstyllys” from the Porkington MS, a mid-15th century miscellany of poetry and prose now held in the National Library of Wales.  The term appears to come from the belief that thrushes grow new legs at ten years of age and cast their old ones aside.

Last year, in July, I wrote a series of posts about the robins nesting on the cedar beam across our patio. It was the first time they’d nested in that particular spot, though we’ve watched robins build on an elbow of drainpipe on our printshop, in an angle of grapevine climbing our southern wall, and — three times! — in a willow now completely claimed by clematis above the west-facing deck. One year we watched three robins learn to fly and it echoed the passage of our own children away from home. It was very sweet to see the parents and two of the young all in a fir tree calling to the remaining nestling until, whoosh, it flew clumsily from the nest to join them. Every time I see this, I wish for wings myself. Imagine just…well, flying. Gliding away from the nest on wings you never knew you had, the whole world opening.

We were away for four days last week and when we returned, there was a nest in exactly the same place on the beam. No sign of robins but a nest, newly made. And by yesterday, there was a female robin tucked into it — so I’m assuming she’s incubating eggs. The literature talks about “nest fidelity” — the willingness of robins to return to locations and even reuse the same nests. Ours have never reused a nest but maybe that’s because we occasionally remove them (the one on the beam last year) or else the clematis smothered the opening where a bird might enter the cool interior of the willow.

This year, the female is not as skittish as last July. She remains on the nest while I’m watering. I put a saucer of worms on the ground below the nest and went off to do something else. When I passed that way again, I noticed that all the worms had been eaten. So I bet she remembers that I fed her last year too.

I think of Emily Dickinson:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops — at all –

And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me.

Every year the same things happen. I begin the tomato seeds. I wait for the first ripe fruit. Baskets of sun-warmed tomatoes give me such pleasure that I forget I’ve done this for nearly 30 years. And the robins, with their echo of our own life, the tune without the words : a nest,  patience, the helpless young growing to maturity in the time it takes to close my eyes, then open them.

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eye to eye

Angelica is out digging worms in a pile of soil by the garden. She is as entranced with the small family living in the nest and in the trees (the parent robins spend more time in the firs near their nest than on the beam by the actual nest and given the loud cries of their single remaining offspring, who can blame them?) as we are and since her arrival yesterday, she’s been filling the saucer with worms to help out the parents. There’s an added dimension to this — and that’s Lucy, Angie’s lithe black cat who accompanied her from Victoria. Lucy loves being here, having visited several times a year during her life with Angie. She prowls around, catching the occasional tiny wandering shrew. She’s only allowed outside if someone watches her and so far, so good. When we had cats ourselves, the robins never built so close to the house. But obviously this pair didn’t expect a visit from Lucy.

So here’s the lanky robin nestling with its devastating eyebrows.

eye to eye

All day I’ve been thinking of Tess Gallagher’s beautiful poem, “Bird-Window-Flying”:

I could see the memory of light

shining water through your wings. You

were gray with it. The window

had aged you with promises.

I remember this young bird’s wings when they didn’t yet have feathers. In three days, I expect it will be learning to fly.

 

open

John went to the garden to pick broad beans (they are so beautiful right now), Mendel peas, and broccoli while I watched the robins feed the young ones. Back and forth, back and forth. The parents are much less nervous about us — or maybe just desperate: at the rate the juniors are growing, feeding them takes precedence over fear. During a brief parental absence, I held the camera over the nest and immediately three heads rose, beaks open. In this image, though, you can only see two.

open

I’m gradually remembering some of the lessons of high-school biology when we learned about the difference between altricial and precocial avian development. Precocial young, like ducklings and goslings, are born with down and are pretty mobile (as well as cute!) almost as soon as they’ve hatched. That’s in part because the parents nest near the ground and predation is a high risk. The eggs themselves are more energy rich and the young do more of their developing inside the egg. Robins are altricial, as are all passerines; the young require more intensive care on the part of their parents.

It’s a pleasure to have this happening so close to where we do our daily chores, eat our meals, and take time to simply watch what is a strangely moving microcosm of family life.