It’s a rare, though becoming less rare, warm winter day. Early February and the sun is higher. Standing on a low deck overlooking the garden, my legs are caressed by the low light yet my head is shielded by the eave—I find this dichotomy of temperature soothing. This is the best time of year, watching red-breasted nuthatches, juncos, chickadees, finches, and sparrows approach and recede from the feeder like ocean waves. Something startles them suddenly—they dash for the cover of my standing garden. Slowly, their dark forms emerge from the shelter then wash over the feeder again. Hunger is a season this time of year.
Last summer was the first that I had a birdhouse, and a pair of house wrens raised two broods. I assume it was the same couple who yelled at me when I peeked out the door, then continued yelling long after I’d brought my head back inside. I always felt, when walking the garden, that I was intruding — like I didn’t belong, that at any moment I’d be arrested by birds. The wrens would hop up and down the 20’ birch tree, mad at my being within a few dozen feet of their nest. Once, a wren literally followed me around to the other side of my house berating me the whole time; so much driven passion in a bird half the size of my computer mouse. At times, I felt like my heart was shadowing me from outside my body.
I don’t know birdhouse etiquette, but I left the nest there until last week. I felt it both as a paying homage to the memory of the life born there, and a hope some winter bird would use it for warmth and shelter. Finally, I knew I should clean it out and make way for spring courtships. I kneeled precariously on the deck railing by the corner post and turned the screw, then lifted open the front panel. A good six inches of twigs were encircled like some natural artist’s sculpture, and high within the cup of the nest a full-grown wren tucked in, feet still firmly latched on to the nest.
Did it never learn to leap out of the entrance? Did it die of starvation? Did it not have strong wings or just have some disease? There it was, perfectly formed, feathers smooth and warm, but its body desiccated by the winter air. I dug a shallow grave in the frozen soil, imagining that maybe it could feel the others I’ve buried in the garden over the years. Even in its death I am honored to have it here with us – the roots of prairie grasses and flowers finding their way toward it to bring it home, as I hope they will embrace me one day.
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