May 23, 2011

The View from Mudsock Heights: Bird Watching Here Involves the Good Robin and the Bad Robin

By Dennis Powell | Posted at 1:10 PM

They say that mules are stubborn, but my money is on robins. Well, at least the robin that has been trying to build a nest on my porch light.

Out here in the woods we have birds in vast profusion. Some are ordinary, industrial-grade brown birds. No doubt they are of many species, but they’re ordinary looking and therefore of no interest. (An exception is the phoebe, which has a little topknot that makes it look like a small monochrome blue jay. Oh, and there are wrens, who are impudent. Then there’s the starling which never tires of the game of getting caught in my woodstove. Okay, so maybe the brown birds are sometimes interesting, too.)

A lot of the birds around here look as if they were designed by a kid with a coloring book (the rare kid who can stay in the lines — no scribbled birds hereabouts). They get your attention, when a flash of bright color you’re not accustomed to finding in nature zips past, caught only in the corner of the eye. We have tiny and not-so-tiny birds in a wild array of reds and oranges. We have hummingbirds, and bluebirds, and a multitude of birds that look like canaries would look if they had any imagination. We have birds of prey in greater variety than are commonly found anyplace else I’ve ever lived.

I can’t identify most of them. So when I see a particularly striking specimen I first go unsuccessfully for my camera. Then I drop a quick note to my friend Robin — big R, a person, not small r, a stubborn bird we’ll get back to in a minute — who, from my poor description gets back to me almost at once with an unerringly accurate identification. I then type the bird’s name into the evil Google box atop the browser and sure enough, she was right. Which once again goes to show you it’s not what you know but who you know.

Anyway.

Overlooking my back porch is a light fixture. It makes a very bright light. It gets very hot when it’s on, which isn’t that often and most of the time it is on it’s because I hit the switch by accident. This light was never a problem before.

It wouldn’t be a problem now except for the robin that decided it is a prime building site. (It’s early in the spring, so the wasps haven’t entirely moved in, after which there goes the neighborhood. Which raises also the question why nature, in its overarching diversity, has not come up with a wasp-eating bird and put it here, where it would grow fat.) I noticed the beginnings of a nest atop the light one morning when I was going out to add some banana skins to the compost pile. The nest parts hadn’t been there the day before, so this robin was a fast builder. I removed the twigs and grass and took them, too, to the compost heap.

An hour later I looked out the back door and the nest underpinnings had returned. Again I removed them. Soon they were replaced by new twigs and grass. All this took place in the space of a single morning.

The robin lurked nearby, a stubborn look on its face. I stood by the door. It would land on a crossbeam, a long piece of grass draped from its beak, doing its best to seem nonchalant. The minute I turned my back, it would fly up and deposit the grass and fly away, then sit in the yard, its expression now the avian equivalent of “Who, me? I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”

I looked around for something I could put atop the lighting fixture, to make nest building impossible. All that fell to eye were two miniature bottles of wine that had been left here, each with a few tablespoons of wine in the bottom. They were on the counter awaiting my decision that they had gone bad and now I could throw them away. I grabbed them and balanced them on the flat space where the robin had been trying to build.

Oddly, it worked. The robin flew up to its beam and looked puzzled. But then it flew away. It did this a few more times, so apparently it wanted to make sure the little bottles were not just a temporary impediment. It never flew over to make a closer inspection or tried to knock down the bottles. Maybe it decided there was a bar in the area, so it was no place to raise the children. We shall never know.

That was a week ago. As of today, the little wine bottles are still there — despite all the wind and storminess we’ve had; they’re remarkably stable — and the nest isn’t.

We know how it will play out now, of course. I’ll forget about the little bottles and, one evening in the humid heat and stillness of summer I’ll turn on the porch light. A little while later, there will be popping noises as the bottles explode, ejecting their putrefied contents all over the place.

Nothing I can do about that. When you’re cast in a cartoon, you must play your part. And in this one, I’m Elmer Fudd.

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