This time, 'snail mail' was better than e-mail

Because I do most of my correspondence over the Internet, I seldom look toward our front-door mailbox as a source of surprise. By default, the copper-plated container where our postman drops his daily bundle has become a repository of the routine: utility bills, sales fliers, catalogs full of things we don't want and would never buy.

But one day in early spring, I opened our mailbox and found something I didn't expect. Lifting the lid of our top loader to collect the afternoon mail, I discovered strands of grass and bits of straw. That's when I knew we had a special visitor.

The mailbox had been left open a smidgen for a few hours, creating the perfect opportunity for a wren in search of a new home.

As the field guides on my bookshelf readily attest, wrens love to live within the secret folds of a human household, making nests in old boots left on the doorstep, tractor axles, hanging baskets, tin cans, garden pots, eaves - and mailboxes.

My wife and I had learned that a few years back, when a Carolina wren had built a nest in the tote bag of our daughter's outdoor stroller. We grounded the stroller for weeks to welcome its new tenants, but the nest remained empty.

Not all wrens' nests become active. Male house wrens build nests to attract a female, but the female may reject their handiwork and start a new nest herself. Carolina wrens, a common species around my Louisiana home, have been known to build more than one nest before making a final choice.

With that in mind, I knew that the nest under way in our mailbox might not mature into a wren's new address. To sharpen the odds, my wife used a soup spoon to prop the lid open for return visits. Then we taped a note on the mailbox asking our postman to leave letters in a nearby basket instead.

Over the next few days, the fine mat of twigs, straw, and grass in our mailbox slowly thickened and elaborated into a small, cozy cone. Our wren was able to work each day's magic without being spotted.

But one evening we were watching TV when our 7-year-old daughter, Eve, caught a flash of brown from the corner of her eye. Outside, perched on the mailbox, was a cinnamon-colored bird the size of a sparrow. Over each brow, as elegant as the strokes of an eyeliner pen, were the daring streaks of white that announced the presence of a Carolina wren.

The next morning, after the wren had left for her morning rounds, we peered into the mailbox and spotted a fistful of tiny eggs, each one as lightly freckled as the arm of the class redhead. That's when we started to limit our inspections of the nest to give our guest family room to grow.

Waiting for the eggs to hatch was sweet torture for Eve and her 3-year-old brother, Will. Steeped in the culture of cartoons and sitcoms, they're accustomed to stories that begin and end within half an hour. The progress of our wrens, a domestic saga measured in weeks rather than minutes, struck our kids as an almost unbearable cliffhanger.

When anticipation compelled our children to sneak a peek inside the mailbox, the expectant mother would bolt from the box like a bat from a belfry, startling them as effectively as any Pandora's box. In short order, we all learned to be patient.

Our waiting was rewarded weeks later, when faint chirps from the mailbox told us the eggs had hatched. Chancing a glance after the mother had flown off for food, we found four fledglings inside - featherless and pinkie-sized with wide-open mouths betraying the endless appetite of newborns everywhere.

Gratified, we recommitted ourselves to a quarantine of the new family. After two more weeks, like a teapot roiling to a boil, the mailbox emptied its contents on a sleepy Saturday morning. The mature brood spilled from the mailbox for a test flight around a nearby flower bed.

After a few days, it was clear that the mailbox was vacated for good. My wife and I, with two kids still at home, got a taste of what parents mean when they talk about the empty-nest syndrome.

We miss our wrens, but we're thankful for the crash course in ornithology that landed in our mailbox this spring.

Try getting that in an e-mail.

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