Feathers 'n parsnips
Not all the swallows return to Capistrano. Each spring a lively herd shows up at Friendship Back River. The day varies, but it is always a certain kind of day , and it is usually just about a week after Parsnip Day. One morning the periphery will be loaded with far darting tree swallows, ready to undertake replenishing until, come fall, the accrual perches on utility wires and makes them sag. This time, on Parsnip Day, I found that the previous summer had been my best, and I had eight tree swallow families in my eight bluebird boxes. Always before, one or two would remain vacant. It takes a certain territory to support a pair of nesting birds; it does no good to place two bluebird boxes in the same tree. So I knew my vacant boxes meant I had them, like the slats on Virgil Richard's lobster trap, ''too close apart.'' Each year I would shift this one or that one, and now I had succeeded with the proper spacing.
There is nothing at all unusual about getting tree swallows in bluebird boxes. We have bluebirds in Maine, but not this close to salt water. The front door suits both varieties, and if bluebirds should move in to one of my bluebird boxes, the feisty tree swallows would soon roust them out and take over. Perhaps it is unusual to include Parsnip Day in the ornithological notes of the season from Back River, but there is a logical connection. Parsnips are best if allowed to ''winter,'' and being frozen under the snow gives them a sweetness. And about the time the snow is gone and the frost is softened, a warming morning will bring to my mind that I haven't cleaned out the bluebird boxes. Tree swallows will not return to a box that still has last year's nest. The boxes hang from tree limbs by converted coat hangers, and I have a long bamboo pole with a hook, so I can take a box down and put it back without needing a ladder. In short, cleaning the boxes is reason for a leisurely inspection of the premises, and between boxes I notice this and that as necessary.
Parsnip Day is a traditional Maine feast day, something comparable to the occasion of the first rhubarb pie, the first fiddleheads, the first green peas, and the annual strawberry festival of the Knit-Sum-Sew-Sum-Club. Not everybody relates parsnips to birdhouses, but that's our excuse. Traditions long established, like governments, should not be changed for light and transient causes, so as I come back with my bamboo pole over my shoulder, I have some parsnips that I have un-mudded en passantm . They appear on table either fried or as a stew, and the day I prepare the bluebird boxes for the tree swallows is our Parsnip Day. I never knew anybody to stand up and wave his hat and cheer about parsnips, and I like Parsnip Day best of all because it means I won't have to eat another parsnip for a whole year. Now for the bad news:
The romantic gallantry of our neighborhood gander has cost us a great horned owl. I had heard the cry of an owl from the tall pines by the shore, and recognized the Cambridge influence. The Harvard branch of the owl family says ''To whom?'' This didn't help my popularity in the community, but there was some interest in the news that we had great horned owls nesting here. This is a big bird, majestic and spectacular, and incubation comes late in the winter, much earlier than with other birds, and is usually in an old crow or raven nest. I hadn't gone down in the deep snow to gaze aloft to see what I could see, but now and again I would hear the hoo-hoo-hoo, and I always replied to assure them that I am a sociable cuss.
Then one morning a neighbor stepped out to do his barnyard chores, and he found his goose had been mugged. He keeps a pair of goosers that stand about ten hands high apiece, and he has a shelter so they can come and go. The goose looked somewhat done in, head hanging, feathers a-rumple, and not at all rugged and bouncy. Then he noticed the gander seemed a bit out of sorts, and next he saw a great horned owl by the fence corner, very much hors de combatm . What barnyard drama! Easy to reconstruct. The owl had tackled the goose, and she was too heavy for him to carry off. A tussle, and comes the gander. Have you ever been knocked down by a whack from the knob-bone on a gander's wing? It smarts. So we have one fewer owl, a shining knight gander, and a happy goose that has recovered.