After dragging her tail feathers for about a week, Zelda finally got ahead of me. Saturday she had two eggs (one more than I guessed). Easter Sunday I watched her sit on the nest with a look of concentration. It wasn’t mid-morning like the book said, but about 8:15. (If you’ve been up since dawn hunting worms, 8:15 is mid-morning). She flew away after about twenty minutes. Later she came back and settled herself for a long stay. I figured she’d laid her last egg and was now incubating.
Sure enough when I checked that afternoon, three beautiful eggs lay in the sunny nest.
Oh, I thought, I hope she stops at three. Five in the family would be perfect.
I always thought families of five was the perfect number, a notion that probably came from an old health textbook of my sister’s called Five in the Family. Back in the Dark Ages, we bought our textbooks instead of renting them. My sister left her books behind and I read them and drew witches in her old spelling book.
The family in Five in the Family consists of Mother, Father, Sue, Jack, Tommy, and Jack’s puppy Spot. The front cover shows Father taking a photo of the others (using a Brownie box camera). Each section features a different member of the family. At the beginning are “photographs,” giving the book an album look.
I suppose that was part of my fascination with this book. It certainly wasn’t the writing:
It was Jack’s birthday, and the family was looking at pictures of him. “Oh!” laughed Jack. “Here I was on my very first birthday.”
“This is how you looked at three,” Father said. “And here you are at five.”
“I like last year’s picture,” said Sue. “Tommy and I were in it, too.”
“And now you have another birthday, Jack,” said Mother. “Dear me! How fast the time goes!”
The stories are all syrupy because it is, after all, a reader on health. For Jack’s birthday party, “There were hot soup and sandwiches, milk, and apples.” If I’d been invited to that party, I would have stomped out.
Despite the book being soaked with insipid dialog like, “Oh, Daddy, why didn’t you tell me before you took my picture? Then I could have been standing straight,” I read this book over and over, memorizing the illustrations. I wanted to be in that family.
Last year a new family moved across the street from us. Mother, Father, a boy, two girls, and a dog. Five, the perfect number. I watched them out the window on school mornings. The mother walked the boy and the oldest girl to the bus stop, carrying the youngest girl. She kissed them goodbye and waved until the bus rounded the corner. In the afternoons, the boy and girl hopped off the bus and raced home, eager to return to their safe, cozy nest.
I remembered how I stood at the bottom of our driveway alone, waiting for the bus to come down a busy highway. At the end of the school day, I walked slowly up our long steep driveway.
Last weekend I glanced out the window (we have lots of windows in this house—I don’t really spy on the neighbors!). The father spread a blue blanket under their blossoming Bradford pear. The kids came out carefully carrying a glass and plate. The whole family ate their lunch in the front yard, the dog bounding from one to the other. Later the father helped the youngest roller skate and then played catch with the middle girl.
I thought how well-loved these children are, how good and kind their parents are. Such a contrast to my own childhood. It wasn’t that I wasn’t loved. I wasn’t well-loved. I know the difference. And I knew it then.
Five in the family. Scott and Zelda would have three children. Two boys and a girl. I would name them Bill, Howard, and Irene, after my brother-in-law, stepfather, and mother. I like the idea of them coming back as robins. And I decided to throw a little birthday party when they get here—with cake and ice cream, no apples or soup or milk.
Then next day when I checked the nest, Zelda had left me a surprise. A fourth egg. Six in the family is okay, too. I’ll name the new robin Esther, after my husband’s mother.
They’ll be here in less than two weeks. Two weeks in the nest. And then they’ll be gone. How fast the time will go.
After last Tuesday’s day-long downpour, I didn’t see Scott and Zelda all day Wednesday. Or Thursday. After the rain it turned cold. Too cold to lay eggs. I checked the nest—it seemed fine. But where were they? They’d left. I was sure of it.
Once, song sparrows nested in our front-door wreath. The female laid four pale blue speckled eggs and then disappeared. Granted, the front door wasn’t the best place for a nursery. But I’d taped off the entrance and snarled at anyone who put a toenail on our front porch. Still, they left. Heartbroken, I removed the nest and eggs.
I decided, in my perverse way, that because I wanted a family of birds, I couldn’t have it. No, they’ll nest under our neighbor’s two-story deck like they did last year. “Robins have got a nest there,” my neighbor told me with an edge of disgust.
Friday afternoon, I went out to check the nest. Zelda was in it! Joy rose in my throat. Zelda stood in the nest, picking the edge of it. Was she eating it? Then she stuck her head under the fake yellow tulips. I’d read that robins typically lay when the nest was ready. That they lay mid-morning, not at dawn like most birds. That the female lays one egg a day. That she doesn’t start incubating until her clutch is complete.
Clearly Zelda is a first-time nester. She hasn’t read the book and doesn’t know she’s not supposed to stick her head under a bunch of fake tulips. I hoped she’d get in gear soon.
Saturday we went out and I didn’t think about the robins. Hardly. When we came back that afternoon, I checked the nest right away. Two eggs! But Zelda is supposed to lay one egg a day (it’s much harder than you think). I admired the size of them—the first brood of the year has the biggest eggs. I didn’t tell Zelda she’d have to build another nest and lay more eggs again . . . and possibly a third time.
Beautiful blue eggs for Easter. How perfect. Almost as perfect as my ninth birthday.
My birthday fell on a Monday in 1961. The weekend before, I went with Mama to Grandaddy’s and Grandma’s. They were both sick and old. I hated their house with its dark woodwork and medicine smells, the creak of Grandma’s wheelchair, her wild stare, Grandaddy’s cough, the fact I had to be quiet.
That Saturday I was reading about whooping cranes in a library book. Only 21 whooping cranes were in existence! When Mama said she was going to the store for a few minutes, I was too engrossed in the plight of the whooping cranes to fret about being left alone with my grandparents. I snicked chocolate drops from Grandaddy’s secret stash in the dining room and wondered how I’d get to Texas to save the cranes.
When Mama came back, she set a paper bag from Drug Fair on the chair and checked on her parents. I saw a book peeking out of the bag. The Golden Fun-to-Learn Book of Birds had a beautiful blue-green cover and cost 59 cents. I shivered with delight. Mama bought me a bird book for my birthday! I pretended I hadn’t glimpsed the book, but spent the rest of the weekend wrapped the wonderful knowledge of it.
I don’t remember my birthday. I’m sure we had homemade ice cream, probably lemon. I don’t remember my older sister being nervous and edgy, but she must have been. I was newly nine and in love with birds.
Three weeks later, my sister left home. Left the nest first. Left me.
It took a long time to realize that her leaving wasn’t personal. At fifteen, Pat eloped with her boyfriend. My sister didn’t have an instruction manual either. Nest-building and family-raising came hard. I didn’t know any of that. I only knew I was alone. I felt like one of the last whooping cranes. But birds—and books—saved me.
I don’t know what happened to my Golden Fun-to-Learn Book of Birds. Tossed out, I guess, or passed along to my niece. Later I tried to find another copy but couldn’t remember the title, only the color of the cover—blue-green. I found The Golden Play Book of Bird Stamps (previous owner had rudely licked in every stamp). I found Adventures with Birds (previous owner had played all the games). I found the Whitman Big Guide, Birds Everywhere. Those books seemed close, but not quite it.
A few years ago, my husband and I were browsing in an antique mall. Downstairs in a back corner, I saw a book on the floor. My heart stopped. There it was–The Golden Fun-to-Learn Book of Birds. When I picked up the book, it seemed to vibrate in my hand, like a divining rod. It was only $2. I would have paid $50.
The last spring my sister was home, we dyed eggs for Easter. We dunked our hard-boiled eggs in teacups with Paas tablets dissolved in water and vinegar, taking turns using the wire egg-dipper. I always took my eggs out too soon. They seemed just the right color bobbing in the teacup, but when I set them wetly in the punched-out holes in the cardboard box, my yellow seemed pallid, my purple too pale, my blue too tentative.
My sister had the knack. She’d drop the eggs in one color and then another—blue and green—and leave them a good long time. And that’s how she created the most beautiful egg of all. Robin’s egg blue. The color of my book cover. The color of the eggs in the nest in the window box. The color of our last spring at home together.
It has remained my favorite color my entire life.
As soon as it was daylight, the robins were working on the nest. Today they were cooking with gas, no add a bunch of grass and then take the rest of the day off. They took turns flying straight to the window box. Normally the female does the actual building, but sometimes the male will help.
So many quick trips were made to the site, I’m sure the male was involved. After delivering material, they flopped around inside the window box. It was funny, like watching fat people trying to get out of a bathtub.
But it’s also hard, creating a nest with nothing but a beak, feet, and breast. I tried to take pictures of this process. My little Canon wouldn’t zoom close enough, plus I was taking photos through a window screen.
So I ran upstairs for my Nikon. I wrenched the lens but that just made the image out of focus. I ran back upstairs for my Nikon book. Where was the *&^%$ zoom button? The one I found was for reviewing photos. Frustrated, I set the Nikon down before I threw it in the trash, and ran upstairs again to take pictures from an upstairs window with the Canon. Now I was even farther away.
I took two dozen pictures, a fuzzy glimpse of a head, a blurred wing, a tail poking up. The birds would have been more entertained by the lunatic photographer if they weren’t so busy. I went out to run errands. By the time I got back, they were still at it.
I clocked six straight hours of ferrying materials to the window box. And then they were gone. Figuring it was safe, I took a bucket of water for the birdbath (my excuse for barging in uninvited) and my camera. I leaned in. Ta-da!
I felt as proud as if I’d made that nest myself! Notice the scratchy mud prints on the sill of window box. Did they use dirt? You betcha. Check the earlier photos from the post two days ago. No dirt in the first picture. A little tiny bit of dirt the next.
The nursery seemed ready.
It rained ax handles all the livelong day. I fretted over that nest with no protective overhang and even considered taking an umbrella out and somehow attaching it to the window box.
I called my husband. He said he could build a little roof. Then I realized that birds everywhere had soggy nests. They probably weren’t happy but it was part of setting up housekeeping outdoors.
I checked the robin’s timetable: when the nest is ready, the eggs will be laid one day apart for up to five days, and she’ll lay in mid-morning. The first clutch of the season will be bigger than the second. She’ll incubate the clutch for two weeks, beginning when the last egg is laid. That way the eggs will hatch at the same time. The baby birds will stay in the next about two weeks.
I’ve named my nesting pair Scott and Zelda. Waiting . . . waiting.
If you want to build your own robin’s nest, here’s how: www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/robin/BuildNest.html
I walked outside to the glorious orchestra of birdsong and budding trees (yes, they sing too). Two male robins got into a fight, a swirling dance of beating wings and yellow beaks. The female robin—my nest-builder—flew in low and began tugging at the dead grass. Her look clearly said, Take it somewhere else, boys. I’ve got work to do. She carried the grass back to the window box. So she was still working on the nest!
The bird garden wasn’t finished. This was a project I’d dreamed up in April, 2009. The area was a jungle of honeysuckle, creeper, and weeds. My husband cleaned it out, added mulch, and bought two holly bushes and a rhododendron, which promptly died. (Our Rule of Gardens: plant three, one will die, usually the prettiest.) The next spring we replaced the fence (plastic! love it!), built the shed, and started the cat cemetery.
After breakfast, we bought a truckload of shredded mulch. Buying mulch in bags means you have the luxury of spreading it when you want. Buying a half ton of it loose means you deal with it immediately. We dragged out spades and rakes began shoveling and raking. A robin watched us warily from the shed roof.
When we were done, wearing as much mulch as was on the ground, my husband cleaned out the shed, a noisy and disruptive operation if you were a robin eager to work on your nest. I had bought a chippy, rusted motel chair for a price that nearly made my husband faint. I wanted something in the bird garden that was different, that the birds could poop on, and use the seat for a feeder. I made note that the large black leaf keeper that attaches to our lawn tractor and does not work would go next.
That afternoon I weeded the daylily flower bed. This sounds as grand as the “bird garden”—someone gave my husband seven daylily bulbs which he planted around our light pole. Daylilies are a bit boring but also no trouble. Until they get going good, though, chickweed runs rampant.
The sun was bright and strong, as it is in April. A mockingbird sang on our fireweed bush. A cardinal cheer-cheered across the street. A song sparrow, destined to nest in a “dwarf” spruce we need to chop down, sang from the dormer roof. I realized the sparrows beat us to it again. The spruce will stay and for the next year I’ll hear people struggling up our walk, saying, “I wish they’d cut these bushes back.”
It’s hard to understand that even in our crummy clay-ey soil, things grow at a ridiculous rate. The dwarf spruce bushes are almost up to the gutter. Give a plant an inch and it’ll take an acre. And it is no small matter to “cut them back.”
The neighborhood was full of familiar sounds: Patches the dog barking. Kids in the cul-de-sac playing and yelling. Cars pulling up to the stop sign, their radios blaring pop, rap, country. As I grubbed out a fistful of chickweed, I realized this was home.
It was a notion so startling I sat back on my heels. We built this house almost 18 years ago. The house has been decorated and redecorated, painted and repainted, carpets yanked up and hardwood floors put down, furniture, accessories, and different colored towels have come and gone. We planted azaleas and roses, mowed the grass from April through November. The house was my home.
But not the place.
I never claimed my neighborhood as home. I lived in Fredericksburg, but it wasn’t home. Home was—well, where was home? It’s not the house we lived in before moving here. Other people live there now. The house I grew up in has been torn down.
As I clutched that hunk of chickweed, I thought, “This is my mockingbird, my cardinal, my song sparrow, my overgrown spruces. My cars playing music, my kids yelling.”
It was an unsettling moment. I’ve spent so much of my life looking backward to a place I can’t ever go back to, or looking forward to a future that I believed was somewhere else, that I never let myself think, “I am home.”
I carried that thought around with me all day, tight in my grasp the way the robin had carried grass in her beak, afraid I might drop it.
I would never have noticed if I hadn’t been sitting in my husband’s chair at breakfast. Early April sun poured over the table on my side and I couldn’t read. (Reading and eating is one of my greatest pleasures.) I happened to look up from my book, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, my mouth full of cereal.
I saw a female robin light on our deck rail. She had a bunch of grass in her beak, much like my flaxseed cereal. She flew to the window box on our shed then stuffed the grass in one corner of the box with a lot of awkward flapping.
She’s building a nest! I thought, delighted. And in full view of where we take all our meals! I practically had to lash myself to the chair to keep from running outside.
A few days before, I’d spent the entire weekend raking five years of leaves out of an area we call the bird garden.
That rather grand name describes a stand of random saplings—a struggling dogwood, a bully of a cedar tree that’s so ugly I threaten to cut it down, a scraggly native holly and two holly bushes we planted—all ringed by mature sweetgum and hickory trees that drop millions of gumballs and hickory nuts. The unlikely group of saplings was “planted” by birds so it’s fitting the area is theirs. The garden contains a birdbath, feeders, and the cat angel statues and plaques that mark the graves of Xenia, Mulan, and Persnickety.
That weekend I raked and bagged and pruned and swore—getting pricked in the butt by holly bushes and slapped in the face by that ugly cedar was hardly my idea of a fun time. I picked up an entire truckload of sticks. The next truckload was filled with leaves. We needed mulch but everybody else had the same idea and by the time we got to Home Depot, there were only six bags left, three of them torn. We spread the six bags in the garden, but it was like a teaspoon of water in sand. The robin may have been sitting on the shed roof, watching us, scoping out the window box as a nesting site.
After breakfast, I went outside with my camera. I had painted the window box bright red and keep fake flowers in it, depending on the season. The yellow tulips had been shifted by the wind, leaving a gap at one end. Just enough room for a nest.
I snapped a quick photo. The nest was pretty skimpy, just a hollow of dried grass. I thought the robin had made a poor choice. The window box is low, with no overhanging roof or protective foliage. The nest would be open to rain. It’s also open to a very nosy writer-birdwatcher.
There was little activity the rest of the day at the window box. Had my presence scared off the female? The next day I tiptoed out and took another photo. I didn’t linger, just leaned over with my camera and snapped. Inside the house, I compared the photos. Was there any change? Was that piece of grass on the left in that spot the day before? Was she going to add mud? Did she need to since the nest didn’t have to be anchored to a tree branch? Was she coming back?
Please, stay, I silently begged the robin. Despite my lifelong interest (obsession) with birds, I’ve never watched a nest being built. I’ve never seen eggs laid one at a time and then hatch and the hatchlings grow into fledglings.
I need this nest.