I heeded the blackbirds' warning

On the ranch I took care of in northeastern Oregon's Blue Mountains, I had been irrigating about 800 acres of wild mountain grasses and flowers in preparation for the fall hay harvest. My next task was to place a plastic curtain dam in the ditch, enabling water to run down the west edge of the meadow at the foot of the sharply rising, forested ridge. I set the motorcycle on its stand, unstrapped the dam and my shovel from the luggage rack, and put them down in the grass by the ditch's bank.

Two red-winged blackbirds flew up from the grass and around my head, trilling shrill warnings that I must leave immediately. I walked slowly toward the dense grass from where they had flown.

The blackbirds had woven last year's bleached grasses into a nest fastened to reeds that grew from the ditch. The well-concealed nest held five small blue-green eggs, mottled with irregular, dark brown splotches. If I put a dam in the ditch as I usually did, the water would rise and flow through low spots in the bank down three parallel ditches, and water would inundate the nest.

I spoke to the frantic blackbird parents: "OK, OK. Thanks for bringing the nest to my attention. You should build on higher ground next time."

I walked back to the motorcycle, and the birds returned to more important business than driving away a lumbering intruder.

The three ditches ran from high ground almost down to the river, and 40 acres of wild hay stood in need of water. In light of the nest, I would have to change my approach to running the water into the ditches.

I rode through growing green grasses and spring flowers of multitudinous colors and scents. I forded the river and rode to the barn. I tied a bale of hay and several sharp posts onto the motorcycle's luggage rack. I rode back across the meadow to the ditch, left my load there, and then left to tend to other irrigating chores - in places where birds hadn't built nests.

Over the next few days, each time I rode anywhere near the nest, I dropped off another bale of hay, posts, or tools. I couldn't carry much on the small motorcycle, but a larger vehicle would have sunk into the soft soil in the wet meadow. Every time I arrived with more freight, mother and father blackbird flew around me and threatened fiercely until I rode away.

The ditch was deep and wide where I had planned to block water to spare the blackbirds' nest. It was a difficult spot to place a plastic curtain dam with a long pole through the sewn-over top.

I turned the water that flowed down the ditch back into the river, placed the bales of hay in the bottom of the ditch, and drove the sharpened posts through the bales into the bottom of the ditch to pin down the bales. Blackbirds flew around me and threatened me as I worked. I laid the plastic curtain across the ditch, and the bales supported the bottom of the curtain. I shoveled mud onto the bottom of the curtain dam to hold it down so water wouldn't flow under it.

Little by little, I dug a small ditch across 40 feet of grassy meadow to carry water into the ditches I needed to fill. When I was close to the nest, the blackbirds used all their time and energy importuning me to leave. I kept my working times short so the blackbirds could brood on their nest undisturbed.

I had plenty to do elsewhere in the meadow.

When I was confident the dam was firmly in place, and after I had finished digging the small ditch to move water into the ditches I needed to fill, I turned water from the river down the large ditch. Water stopped at the dam, rose in the ditch, and spread across the meadow toward the river.

Meanwhile, the blackbirds' nest sat high and dry in the grass downstream from the dam.

I irrigated mountain meadow on both sides of the river and on both sides of Camp Creek. I repaired fences.

When I returned to the nest, I saw the new dam was still working the way it should. Three fledglings sat still in the nest, protected from water. Adult red-winged blackbirds flew around me and shrieked that I was still unwelcome there. I didn't argue with them. I left quickly.

When I visited that area again, the nest stood empty. The fledglings had grown and flown away to independence.

I had irrigated a lush crop of hay. Irrigation had improved the habitat for the birds that inhabit marshes, grasses, and flowers. The baby blackbirds had hatched and flown from their nest to join the many other blackbirds and bird species that lived in the meadow. I whistled and sang as I worked. Birds whistled and sang all around me, pleased with life on the meadow.

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