We’ve spent a bunch of evenings this summer eating dinner outside near our woodshed, which has a bird house on its west-facing wall that I put up a couple years ago. Its first ever residents are a dutiful tree swallow pair who moved in this spring, and we’ve enjoyed watching them go in and out and eat some of the bugs we’d prefer go elsewhere. It might be a coincidence, but our wasp problem is not nearly as bad this year. I like to think the swallows might be responsible.
Just a couple nights ago we noticed the parents coming back to the house and feeding two wee chicks. They’d snatch insects in mid-air and swoop like winged ballet dancers to a sudden stop at the hole and feed their babies, whose wide mouths eagerly took the food. Just as suddenly the adult swallow would fly off on another sortie and return soon with more grub. We got to know these birds. Their concern with getting their babies in shape to leave the nest registered with us and we talked about it at other times throughout the day. Their plight has been on my mind. We rooted for them, and felt relief and satisfaction when we saw the chicks eat, and felt anxious when their yearning heads stuck out of the hole anticipating the next insect installment.
Our cat Seamus, an accomplished hunter in his twilight years, knows about these birds, as does Peat. Peat barks at the parent when it perches in a nearby dead tree. Last night Seamus sat on a Ponderosa pine round several feet below the bird house. I threw a rock at him and he fled. Tonight, as we watched the birds perform their dusk routine, I thought I’d relieve them of a little stress by moving the round away from the house, and took some perverse pleasure in thinking Seamus would be disappointed at having his bird-killing perch removed.
As the light faded and we returned from a brief stroll around the yard, I noticed Seamus hunched on the ground near the bird house but couldn’t see what he was doing. I threw another rock at him and he ran off. I attended to some other matters for a moment, and then heard Peat barking and saw him facing Seamus under a lawn chair. Seamus ran off again, and Peat dived under the chair, grabbing something with his mouth. It couldn’t be. He brought it to me, still warm but expired, one of the swallow chicks. My heart sunk.
We think we understand something and allow ourselves to hope. I looked back at the house, which now appeared empty. I couldn’t see either parent flying around, and the hole was chick-less. It was as if their hearts couldn’t stay. I don’t know if they’re gone, or if there’s still one chick in the house. I hope, but don’t understand. And I’m angry with my cat for succeeding at doing what I spend all year myself thinking about doing , and a third of it actually doing.
There’s science, and then there’s the other things. I’m dashing this out tonight ipso facto, but always think of the phrase from Tennyson’s long, long poem (which I’ve never read much of but should) in memory of a dear friend of his (from Cambridge, no less – the one in England, not the one I’m in): “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” which caught the ear and imagination of Darwin’s followers despite the fact that Tennyson doesn’t really pick a side of the Creation-Evolution question. But it’s all I’ve got to console me in situations like this: shit happens, and there’s usually an explanation even if you don’t like it. I want that baby bird back. It was obviously too soon for it to fledge. I don’t even know what happened, but I wish it hadn’t.
About a week ago, Peat snagged a baby meadowlark, brought it to Leslie who Googled an answer while holding the bird with her other hand, returned it to the nest, checked on it later that evening, and found it to be fine, with mom nearby. A couple days later, I found a meadowlark chick corpse in the grass, no doubt re-retrieved by Peat, just doing what he does best. Angus did the same thing to a robin a couple years ago. It’s just hard to take. And then, tomorrow, in another frame of mind, I’ll say again to Leslie for the millionth time since last December, “I can’t wait for chukar season,” when I’ll go and try to kill birds I haven’t gotten to know because I couldn’t stand it if I did.