Sunday, April 27, 2008

Plaintive Cries in the Trees

I've been following a bit of a local tragedy here the past few days. I don't have all of the facts and all I can do is surmise. There have been bird related tragedies here in the past, and I'm guessing it might be the some of the same cast of characters involved now.

Every Spring we have a house finch couple who come and build a nest in this hanging basket we have out on our back porch.

We think it's probably the same couple who comes back year after year--some birds do that. We've had several nests and I can hold a mirror over the nest for the kids to see the eggs, and then the chicks when they hatch. It's very exciting and we all feel a certain kinship with our avian visitors. My husband and I are especially proud of their parenting and see how hard they work to safely and healthfully bring their kids to fledging. They are a great team and love those chicks. I may be anthropomorphizing, but still I believe it. There must be love involved somewhere with all of that work.

The house finch eggs are quite small, not tiny, but small and so it was puzzling for me the first time I looked in the nest and saw 2 house finch eggs and then a third huge egg. Did this come from the same bird? If not, how did it get here? Whose was it? What's going on?

My husband figured it out. He was sitting out on the porch and saw a cowbird come to the nest, grab one of the eggs and hurl it out.


It broke on our porch sliding glass door. Later, we looked into the nest and saw 3 cowbird eggs. They were obviously bigger than the house finch eggs. We didn't know what to do.

That season, the house finches took care of two baby cowbirds, the third one had been pushed out, or fell out. It was all so macabre. The babies of the bird who had destroyed their own eggs, now demanded to be fed, and the house finches fed them.

We were all heart broken. It was cruel and bizarre and awful.

The next year, I read up about cowbirds. They can lay up to 80 eggs in a two month period. That Spring, when the cowbird eggs showed up in the nest in our hanging basket, I meddled in. I felt OK about it, because some of the cowbird eggs will certainly survive elsewhere, and the house finches can get a break here. I carefully took some tongs, and took the eggs out of the nest and put them on the ground near a bush. We thought maybe an animal would come and eat them. The house finches had a good brood of 4 birds and they all fledged beautifully.

That has been our approach ever since. If there are cowbird eggs, we feel no compunction about getting them out of there. There will have to be cowbird chicks elsewhere.

There is no nest in the hanging basket, yet. There still may be. But, there has been a couple of cardinals who've built a beautiful nest in the bush next to our porch. I don't think it's in the best spot. It's at shoulder height, it's right next to the porch where we go in and out of the house. That has never bothered the finches, but their nest is also high above our heads.

I've been surreptitiously glancing into the nest as I pass the bush ever since we realized it was there.
Cardinal Nest

A few days ago, I noticed an egg! It was bigger than a house finch egg, obviously, coming from a bigger bird. There was only one egg, and I lifted the kids up to show them too. Thrilling.

The next day, we were racing around the house playing Ghost in the Graveyard (do you guys know this chasing tag game? It is a riot. My kids learned it from swimmermom and Neo-agrarian's kids.) I have to say here, that playing a chasing tag game with my kids where we race around our house across the front yard and into the back yard is a little embarrassing. I can see how some people would find an adult playing such a game supremely silly and somehow not respectable. I, however, mostly don't care. My kids and I are having a marvelous time and that's important to all of our happiness. Being happy, or at least having opportunities, is part of our schooling around here. There are a lot of paths to happiness and playing tag with mom is just one of them. Memorizing lines and learning a part for a drama group is another. It's not always silly happiness.

So, the next day as we were playing Ghost in the Graveyard, I noticed the egg on the ground, broken, a tiny orange yolk spilling out, a few feet away from the bush . There is just no way to know how that happened. I can't really imagine the cardinal flying away quickly, maybe startled by our play, and then accidentally kicking the egg out. That could have happened. But, birds fly away startled from nests all the time--they can't kick an egg out every time, or even a lot of the time--there wouldn't be any birds left if that were the case.

I don't know for sure that it even was a cardinal egg. I looked online, and found that cardinal eggs and cowbird eggs are remarkably similar. A light blue with mottled brown spots all over. They are about the same size. If it was a cowbird egg, could the cardinal have recognized it as not her own, and then she kicked it out? That's possible.

We don't know the answer to the mystery of the cardinal nest and the broken egg.

It now seems that the cardinals have abandoned the nest. I never see them near it any more, although I have seen the male come to the bush a few times and fly to different trees in our yard and the neighbors' yards. I haven't seen the female in days.

Last night I heard the distinctive cardinal call and I went out into the back yard to see if it was the male or female. It took a while for me to find him. He was at the absolute highest point in the area in the top most branches of a neighbor's maple. He was calling and looking, and calling, and calling, and calling. The female never came. I scanned all around too. She was just gone. He sounded heart broken. Again, I'm anthropomorphizing, but I think birds can love each other. I think they attract one another and they build a life together and share the work of raising their young together. That's love in my book.

The cardinal's plaintive cries went on and on and she never came. I couldn't stand it and went inside just as the sun was setting. He was no longer brilliant red silhouetted in the sky--he was dark and alone and calling for his love.

It is so sad. What has happened?


Anonymous said...

This is absolutely beautiful.
I am also concerned about the soaring number of birds that take advantage of other birds. I live in San Francisco, and never saw Crows when I was a kid. Now there are everywhere, and I've seen them flying with other bird's eggs in their beaks - probably to feed to their young.
I've been feeding the neighborhood House Finches on my back porch, and there are bigger, brown birds that come & scare them away. Also very aggressive black birds.
I came across your writing while looking for a good photo for a cow bird. If any of these are cow birds, I have a little peashooter that I've gotten very god as using, and I’ll scare them away.
Is a Cowbird black or brown? Any other distinguishing features? The photo you've posted makes it look like it's got red around the eyes.
Any help is appreciated.

Laura said...

Thanks, Anonymous (Tonideryp). It was quite moving to me at the time.

Cowbirds have black bodies and brown heads. I'm not sure that the picture I got is the best representation. I don't know if they have red around their eyes.

I googled "destroying cowbird eggs" a while ago, or something similar and found a very interesting post at some site (I don't remember where...) The destruction of native birds' eggs is an illegal act (!). Furthermore, the poster made the point that the cowbird is a native bird and the housefinch is an introduced species.

Who's right, who's wrong?

Nature is messy and can be violent and I still want to remove cowbird eggs if I see them--even for the benefit of the non-native housefinch...not that I will, of course, as it is illegal. Maybe a strong gust of wind will come up, and a branch will flip them out--who knows? That would have nothing to do with me.


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