Personal Essays

Nest

Where people build homes, birds sometimes build nests—and there’s no guarantee cohabitation of the species will be idyllic.

Credit: Library of Congress

They built our house on a slope, which matters to us because we walk up a flight of wooden steps to get to the front door. There’s a covered front porch up there, and that’s nice because you can sit on the Adirondack chairs and look down to the yard and flowers below. We have two hanging basket planters on that covered porch. They’re about six feet apart between two of the faux-Victorian porch posts that I’m sure the builders got on discount from Lowe’s. In April, a pair of robins built a nest in one of the planters. We didn’t notice until it was already in place with three turquoise eggs.

It was a bad choice for the robins, real poor planning. Because first of all, this is a dangerous situation—on one side of the nest they were only five feet above the porch, sure, but out the other side they were about 10 feet above hard, mulched ground. Too far for a chick to fall safely. Plus it’s dangerous for us—every time we came home and walked those stairs, those robins dive bombed us and fluttered all about our heads.

The first two or three times you think its coincidence, they’re just flying nearby. Soon you figure they’re doing it intentionally. Eventually it’s obvious they’re doing it intentionally. So we’d hover low and race up the stairs and wince. Or we’d try to prowl sneaky-like up the stairs, cat burglars without black eye-covering bandannas or dollar-sign bags of loot. Or we’d see how far away they’d perched awaiting our arrival and try to time a vaulting ascent, bounding three steps at once, yelling go go go go to the kids and protecting our precious Kroger bags of Kashi cereal and toaster strudels. I only got hit dead-on one time, and even that was but a faint peck on the back of my head. But still, come on, that shit’s nerve-racking.

After not quite three weeks the chicks were apparently ready to take flight. One of them, apparently not. He fell from the far side and didn’t survive. Our kids, all of us, were distraught from the suburban fiasco. When I got home the next night the other two chicks were gone and, I think, safely so.

Birds.

That’s just the half of it. It was a few weeks later and I was staring absently out the living room window when I see a different papa bird flapping about by the hanging baskets.

Crap.

I perk up and focus. I glower as he brings a few wet, muddy clumps to the recently vacated basket. It isn’t clear if he saw me glowering, so I give it another try to deter him. Doesn’t appear that works. Then I lie in wait inside the house and, when he’d left to get the next beak-full thicket, I scramble out to the porch, lift the basket off its hook, put it down to eye level, and find a nest in the making. Damn him, that soon-to-be dive-bomber was putting together the start of a super-impressive nest right in front of me. I’m staring blankly just trying not to drool and he’s building the future.

That bird’s got nothing, he’s so lost. I’m chewing my nails, calling my wife, fidgeting, jumping up wide-eyed. But not this time. I had middle-school physics. I know about gravity. I’m figuring to be the hero this time around, so I take that basket of still-dead flowers—we hadn’t been able to water them when there was that other nest in there, because we’re such good people—and set it to the side on the porch. Then I come back inside, glad to have saved a future chick’s young, flightless life, since I know bird-life starts at porch-egg conception (middle-school biology). I sit back down with chin on forearm, looking with self-satisfaction over the sofa out to the porch. I should get a community award or something.

Seconds later Papa Bird comes gracefully fluttering up from below the porch, as if a helicopter appearing over a rooftop, with a few more wet, muddy clumps for this nest.

Oh, no.

He is baffled.

Oh, shit.

I can see—I swear I can see—he is baffled. I’m almost positive he isn’t humming “Flight of the Valkyries” like I am.

He flutters and holds steady just above the railing, exactly where he knows he and the lady bird picked that nest spot, and looks up and looks down, turns left and stares, turns back and stares, suspended in time and space. Oh God, he’s so confused. This is heartbreaking. That bird’s got nothing, he’s so lost. I’m chewing my nails, calling my wife, fidgeting, jumping up wide-eyed.

He flies up above the porch to the roofline, pecks and pokes at the gutter for a few seconds. Maybe he’ll start anew up there. OK, OK, no, because then he drops back down to the same spot where once there was a basket. His basket. The family home. The future.

I think this might last a few seconds, that his memory can’t hold much longer. It’s a bird brain. But he keeps fluttering, keeps looking. Still he holds that clump of nest matter in mid-air, for a minute, for an agonizing two, then three. He’s determined. This is a clever bird. This is my fault. This is agonizing. This could jeopardize my community award. I can’t bear it and he challenges me, he won’t give up. I caused this. His sad failure drags on, at least four minutes, then five. He stays with it, and I don’t know if it’s good for them to keep still in flight, hovering—do birds do that for real? It’s not a hummingbird, I know that (middle-school advanced avian taxonomy). Is that safe? Will he die for his nest?

This is a long process, this is oddly ongoing. Finally, finally, I think the awful sequence is over when he floats down under the deck. But he just hovers right back up again and, you know what? This kills me, he goes over, he sets the clumps inside the other hanging planter, six feet to the right! Jesus H. Christ, bird. I saw him make that move and tried to wave him off, no, no, no. But there’s no stopping this bird, mighty bird. I can see his quiet resignation, ‘…guess it was that one…’ He’s over the first one. Then he sets down the muddy thicket in the new one, and flies off to get a new clump.

Once he’s out of sight, I scamper softly out in my socks and take that basket down too.

Benjamin R. Cohen teaches at the University of Virginia and lives outside Charlottesville with his family. He is the author of Notes From the Ground: Science, Soil, and Society in the American Countryside (2009). More by Benjamin R. Cohen