The Shared Work Patterns Of Birds and Men

THE fire escape at the lodge on this Girl Scout ranch we take care of in northern Colorado's Rocky Mountains needed repair. I loaded tools and materials into my pickup, backed up as close to the building as I could get, and unloaded enough to start work.

Two house wrens who worked in and under the nearby shrubbery, gathering food for their offspring, caused a slight delay in beginning the work. I watched them. They took the food into a wooden box that covered electrical cable on the outside wall of the lodge, flying in through small openings under the box's sides.

These small, light-brown birds, about five inches long, cock their tails straight up, then down and up again. They move their wings most of the time, in rapid small motions, even when it seems they don't need the movement for balance. I don't know what purpose this constant activity serves, but when I'm working, I often whistle, sing, and dance a few steps. I carry on a conversation with tools, materials, or imaginary companions, so I don't try too hard to fit all of a wild creature's movements into a se nsible work pattern. It could be that some of what they do is just for fun.

One of these birds is probably the wren that flew into the lodge earlier in the year. I had gone down for a predeparture inspection, to make sure the scouts who had been staying in the lodge had left it in good condition. When I opened the door, a wren flew in.

Three of us followed it around the big main room. It flew from window to window, avoiding my huge, frightening hands. One of the windows had an inside screen. The wren landed on that screen, and I closed my hand around the tiny bird. It wouldn't let go. I was concerned that I might injure the bird if I pulled. Its claws, gripping the screen, seemed no bigger around than sewing thread.

"Let's take the screen out," I said.

My fellow wren capturers unfastened the screen and pulled it back until I could grasp it with my left hand, right hand still closed around the bird. I carried bird and screen out the front door and put them on the ground.

We told the scouts who were waiting what had happened and asked them to stay well away from the bird, who clung to the screen, tail high in the air, feathers ruffling in the wind. Ten minutes later, we looked out the window and saw the wren still clinging to the screen. Five minutes after that, we finished the inspection, and the screen was without wren. The scouts waiting out front said it had flown.

Now that I was working so close to their nest, I wondered if the tiny bird remembered my concern for its welfare and communicated that to its mate. Were they just such dedicated parents that they would go on feeding their young no matter what happened?

Whatever their reasoning, they went on with their work while I trimmed shrubbery, removed wood, screwed new pieces of wood into place with a noisy electric drill, and climbed up and down the ladder close to their nest. I worked on the fire escape on and off for three days, and I never heard the adults make a sound, though the babies raised a ruckus every time the adults departed.

Then Laura, my wife, came down to clean the lodge in preparation for more incoming scouts, and she brought Thorn, our large, shaggy dog. He wanted to lie under the shrubbery, but I told him he couldn't do that, knowing the wrens would consider him a threat. He moved to the porch, but the wrens still scolded without ceasing and wouldn't go on with their work. I finally showed Thorn the attractive shade under the pickup. He stretched out there for a nap, and the wrens went about their business.

When I worked on the ladder close to the nest box, my legs came within a foot of the entrance to the nest. One of the parents arrived with a choice moth. It landed on a branch and waited: I was too close, and it wouldn't enter the nest.

I also had work to do on the staircase farther from the nest, so I alternated, a few minutes on the ladder, then a few minutes farther away from the nest. So I worked on the landing a little at a time and moved down to work on the staircase when I saw either parent waiting with laden bill.

It was a good way to work. I like varying my work as much as I can, and I can't think of nicer creatures to share my day and my work area with, so I did whatever was necessary to accommodate their needs.

Scouts came for the weekend. I showed them where the wrens nested and worked, so they could be careful of the birds and enjoy watching them. The scouts showed me a robin's nest a few feet away from one of the dining-area windows. Some of the scouts sat quietly near the window, watching the robins fly into the juniper bush to feed three hungry nestlings.

The nestlings seemed to be just hungry mouths, expectantly open. I needed to be about my work, so I left the lodge to the scouts and the birds, but I have more work to do on the fire escape, after the scouts leave, and trim to paint. I will continue to watch birds as I work. Perhaps, in addition to watching the parents take care of their broods, I will see the fledglings leave the nest and learn to fly. I enjoy the work I do. I enjoy it even more when wildlife shares its existence with me.

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