John Kehe

Then it struck me, and not very gently

What kind of parent builds a nest on the ground – and then takes on all comers?

Some lessons take a lifetime to learn. The one about money and happiness, for example. Or the one about ice cream at bedtime. Other lessons are like a smack upside the head: You get the picture right away.

I was in the garden, hunkered down, minding my own business, pulling weeds. The breeze was warm, the soil was soft, and the weeds were persuadable. They slipped out like diners dodging the check. It was satisfying work, and I was feeling meditative. 

Another way of saying “meditative” is “totally unprepared to get hit in the head with a bird.” Write this down: You can be aware of a lot of things and still you almost never feel a bird coming on.

But I got the lesson loud and clear. Whack! Somebody has a nest on the ground here, and somebody is pretty prickly about it.

I consider myself a birder, but not a good one. A good one is able to identify birds by sight or sound. A good one maintains a “life list” of all the species he or she has identified. It takes binoculars and a good memory.

I have binoculars.

A good birder might have a life list of hundreds of species. I, on the other hand, have identified the exact same life bird hundreds of times.

But I still think of myself as a birder because I’m interested in birds and their welfare. In particular I try to familiarize myself with the smaller, manageable subset that lives or vacations in my garden. I try to pay attention to their goings-on, in case I need to intervene in a domestic dispute or police the neighbors’ cats, all of which are unauthorized. I know just enough about birds to recognize that the bird that flung itself at my head was no random terrorist.

Still, I was baffled, and possibly a little judgmental. What kind of sloppy parent puts a nest on the ground where it could get stomped on? I can’t be out here routing cats all day long. Should I alert Children’s Services?

I thought about the song sparrow I’d already observed in that area, flitting around all low and sneaky, which struck me as odd at the time. Shouldn’t it be perched up high, singing, like a regular bird? I know that’s where I’d be, if I could fly. Or sing.

For better or worse, there’s no reason to wonder about anything for long these days. According to the internet and some 10,000 largely redundant photos, song sparrows do indeed nest on or near the ground. Several of my day lily clumps and a stand of Salvia looked quite adequate for the purpose. I peered into them. I couldn’t see anything. I peered more closely, courting a beak in the eye. Still nothing. And then I backed away. I’m capable of paying respect to my one-ounce soldiers, and I can get those weeds later, in a month.

And maybe I can hold off for now on that call to Children’s Services. If I can’t find the little woven wonder when I’m right down there on the ground a foot away from it, the proprietor might just know what she’s doing.

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