Dawn Choruses

USFWS_house_finches_(23557798370)It’s no revelation that spring brings the birds. But for those of us who grew up in Houston where seasons barely exist — and therefore plants stay green year ’round and bird migration means only that the feathered ones pop over to Mexico for a quick holiday and then come right back — the bird scene in Massachusetts come May is pretty spectacular.

We have a few birds that stick it out with us all winter in New England: it astonishes me to see the hearty cardinals’ red flashes cut through the monochrome winter landscapes. And a few actually seem to fly north when the geese make their distinct Vs and honk their way in the opposite direction: suddenly, I will notice adorable chubby dark-eyed juncos, those birds that look as if they were born pure white and then held upside down by their feet and dipped in ink, staining their top halves dark grey and leaving their bellies the color of new snow.

But it gets quieter and quieter just as the weather gets darker and darker. Each day, fewer birds are around, and the windows, long propped open, are closed one by one, shutting out the chill, and with it, any remaining birdsong.

After months of huddling inside, there are increasingly more days of good weather, and with them, earlier dawns. I’ve been starved for temperate fresh air, air that doesn’t hurt my face, and I miss our avian neighbors. But why do they have to rise so damn early? Already, in early June, with my two bedroom windows open just a few inches, each morning I have to put a pillow over my head at 4 a.m. to drown out their chirping, while I curse the birds for being such functional, and worse — happy — morning people. (Listen to the cheer here.)

As soon as I got annoyed by the return of the birds, I found two fledgling robins dead in the yard, and I felt sudden, tremendous sadness. I shuttled the dogs into the fenced area to avoid the possible further injury and then examined the scraggly babies. They looked like they were almost developed enough to fly, but not quite, maybe kind of teenage birds. Lying on their backs in the lush grass, it seems like they fell straight from the sky. But an evergreen 50-feet-tall or so looms overhead, so more likely, they toppled from a nest. I took the big shovel from the garage and gave them a proper burial beneath the bleeding hearts, appropriately weeping.

My mother, an avid bird watcher, takes care of her backyard birds every morning immediately after coffee and yoga stretches, and she has been aghast to see our long-neglected bird feeder standing empty during multiple visits. When I visited Houston in March, I stood on the patio with my dad after breakfast to scatter pieces of bread as my dad took fistfuls of millet and peppered the ground. I got home and saw in my backyard the empty plastic cylinder swinging in the late winter wind a few feet over mounds of lingering snow. I have been breaking a familial avian commitment.

As if for some kind of penance — though I knew rationally that the dead baby birds were not my fault — I finally bought birdseed. I repositioned the stand and feeder full of millet and black oil sunflower seeds close to the kitchen window so that my husband and I could watch the birds eat breakfast while we drank coffee. I also made a note to brush the corgi outside so that I could leave the tufts of fur for nest-building. We discussed purchasing a bird bath.

As if for some kind of reward, we became hosts to a new bird family. I received a photo from my husband at work one day, slightly blurry, but clear enough to make out a nest built on top of the light fixture nestled into the corner of our side porch with a small tawny beaked face poking out.

I think she’s sitting on some eggs, he texted.

How sweet! I texted back, delighted that our bird karma seemed to have shifted.

We decided it was a stroke of brilliance on the mother bird’s part to build her nest in the protected cove-like nook of the side porch atop a lamp. Surely the bulb was offering at least some warmth, an incubator of sorts, and we decided the light would stay on until the babies were gone.

A couple of times a day, we spied on them from a window in our dining room, but had a hard time getting a good look. “What do you think they are?” my husband asked. “Sparrows, maybe?” I suggested, seeing only brownish feathers. One day I walked the dogs past the porch outside and noticed a house finch couple — the male a soft red and the female a demure brown — fluttering around on a tree branch close by. They then flew back and forth from the nest to the branch, and I realized I had identified our occupants. I hurried inside to tell my husband. We craned our necks around the corner in the dining room just in time to see the pretty blush-colored dad dropping something into the teensy open mouth of his fuzzy-headed bobbling baby.

I am smitten with the adorable co-parenting I’ve witnessed, each of the adult birds going back and forth from the nest, nervously keeping watch over their temporary home. The way birds do this, unlike lots of mammals, is enchanting to me. I am also pleased to learn that house finches, unlike robins, do not eat worms, but rather are vegetarians, and love seeds.

After a week or so, I stop seeing the dad and even the mother bird seems to be visiting less often. I frequently see two eensy pointed beaks poke over the brim of the woven straw cheeping for food. After Googling, I discover that house finch nestlings leave within 12-19 days of hatching. We had to say farewell almost as quickly as we said hello to the new feathered neighbors. But I am keep the feeder full and leaving the nest in its same safe nook, hoping that someday they come back so that I can spy on them and curse their dawn choruses.

Photo by Peter Pearsall/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. House finch song by Jonathon Jongsma [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D. Both via Wikimedia Commons

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