A Suitable Nest

Tha’ art as safe as a missel thrush.  Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

We started on this enterprise with the highest of hopes, the robins and I. Missing the phoebe pair who nested every year inside the  porch roof at Foley Mountain, we mounted a simple nesting platform on the back wall of our new home. But something went wrong and we learned that nest sites are not as easily come by as you might think. For years we had tried to dissuade the poor, pretty little grey and white phoebes from nesting where a steady stream of visitors inevitably distressed them. Now that we lived in a quieter home, we hoped to welcome them to what seemed to be a sheltered and appealing spot where they could make a nest that would be “safe as a missel thrush”. And indeed, every spring, phoebes appear, bellow “phoebe” for a few days, and display the platform to a mate. We start counting imaginary babies. But no. Each time the birds disappear within days, leaving us with no clue as to why our platform is found wanting.

This year, for the first time, we got a possible hint. Several weeks after the phoebes departed, a robin pair showed up. Eager, earnest, exemplary, they quickly built up a fine, if muddy nest, and the female began sitting. Partially sheltered by the house wall and overhang, and also by the forest glade behind it, they survived unseasonably cold spring days, driving sleet and lashing rain.

Then things got tricky, and eventually, for us at least, sad. Bluejays began a furtive, sinister stalking, very different from their usual brash appearances. Indeed, they were so stealthy that we would scarcely have noticed these potential raiders of bird nests if it hadn’t been for the robins’ acute vocal distress. For days we watched, helpless, as the robins charged valiantly scolding a warning, apparently leaving the jays no peace. But once the stealthy jays were aware of the precious nest, the robin pair hung on for a week before they disappeared and all hope of observing robin babies was over. Did the jays steal the eggs, as they well  might have, or did their presence simply drive the poor parents away?

We’ll never know, but we now have something to think about. Did feeding birds in winter actually create this unsafe situation? Or is the predation simply part of the whole? We still see the robins, but they are wiser birds now, having picked up some of the bluejays’ stealth. Their new nest won’t be visible to us until the leaves go next fall.

About Peri McQuay

Peri Phillips McQuay is the author of Singing Meadow: The Adventure of Creating a Country Home, The View From Foley Mountain, a book of nature meditations on her experiences living for 30 years at the Foley Mountain Conservation Area and A Wing in the Door: Life With a Red-tailed Hawk is the story of her adventures with Merak, a human-imprinted hawk, who lived free but saw McQuay and her family as her special people. Also Peri has written numerous essays, articles, book reviews and a weekly column, published in the Kingston Whig-Standard Magazine. Her credits include Country Journal, Harrowsmith, Bird Watcher’s Digest, The Snowy Egret, Seasons, The Fiddlehead, Herizons and Brick.
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