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Don’t Mess With Mother Nature

Hayden Hollingsworth
Hayden Hollingsworth

Even on the verge of summer it’s not too late to comment on the wonders of spring.  After so much rain in the past month, if you sit quietly on your deck you can almost hear the flowers and trees growing.  As phenomenal as that is, my interest is more piqued by the behavior of the birds.

Living near the forest, Beloved’s yard is populated by a vast variety of winged things, many of whom I can identify by their songs, many more strange to me.  What we really want are bluebirds . . . and we have them, but not quite in the venue we envisioned.

A handsome, professionally constructed bluebird box was mounted several years ago and immediately bluebirds appeared. In no time at all, they had constructed a designer nest of pine needles and we were anticipating egg-laying.

The sparrows (about 100 of them) had different ideas.  They ran off the tenants, tore out the nest and installed their own which showed a remarkable lack of design and planning.  On advice from my bluebird consultant, the famed Earl Morris, I decided two can play the nest-destroying game, so I tore it out before eggs were laid.

In the ensuing three years I can’t tell you how many times that cycle has been repeated but the sparrows are undefeated. They reproduce as if preparing for an audition in the remake of Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds.

Earl had an ingenious suggestion:  Hang a weighted fish line in front of the hole.  He explained that sparrows, being seed-feeders, have poor eyesight and will fly into the line as they try to enter the box, frightening them away.  Bluebirds, which capture live things while on the wing, will fly around it and nest successfully.  So goes the theory.

It seemed as though it was working.  The bluebirds quickly began to install their neat nest.  The sparrows, although interested in tearing it up, were put off by the invisible (to them) fish line.  Construction went more slowly than usual, but we were hopeful . . .  then disaster struck.  A monstrous brown-headed cowbird, looking for a nest ready for an egg, flew into the line and got snared.  It looked like an old western hanging that had gone horribly wrong.  Cowbirds are notorious for using someone else’s nest then flying off with the buffalo herd.  They are the avian equivalent of dropping off a baby at the ER, then disappearing.

To her credit Beloved, who doesn’t pick up wild creatures, donned her garden gloves and set out to rescue the wildly flopping bird.  At her approach the cowbird became so hysterical it managed to free itself and probably is hospitalized for PTSD.

The sparrows, watching all this, learned a lesson:  Make your final approach from the side not the front.  In a day they had dismantled the bluebird nest and started on their own.  Once again, I tore it out.

Meanwhile, the bluebirds were no longer fighting the sparrows but were roosting happily on top of the box while the sparrows labored to get the lengthy straw they use past the barricade.  The bluebirds obviously built a nest somewhere and are now happy parents.  Last year, they picked a box clustered in the center of four feeders.  It must have been like camping at the end of a runway at JFK, but it worked for them.  I don’t know where they nested this year but yesterday when I looked in the bluebird box, the nest, very sparsely furnished, had two dirty-looking sparrow eggs in it.

The moral of the story is this:  Mother Nature knows what she’s doing.  We may try to impose our rules on wild things, but they’ve been in the survival business for millions of years.   When we try to fool around with it, a balance beyond our understanding may be upset.

My personal yard is a different story: I am nurturing my second bluebird brood . . . not a sparrow to be seen.  I even serve daily meal worms when the hatchlings arrive. If the horror movie people are looking for actor sparrows they should come by Beloved’s house; the cowbird, truly frightening, may have recovered enough to join the cast.

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