I have had a number of free-loading tenants this spring, beginning with Mr. and Mrs. Robin.

I noticed them hanging about in the yard in May, though “hanging about” is wrong as they were self-evidently busy, a purposeful couple. It soon became clear they were building a home, and within a couple of days, they had a snug setup wedged between the porch lights under the front eaves of my house, in the Rosemont neighborhood of Portland. Mrs. Robin, one of the few birds I can confidently identify, settled in.

She was there for a few days when the neighbor’s cat discovered her. He’s a fierce and successful hunter, a fact she understood immediately. Simon jumped on the porch railing to try to reach the nest. She abandoned it.

A few days later, Mr. and Mrs. Robin were at it again. I like to think it was the same couple, though that could be wishful thinking. In just a day or two, they built a second, equally pleasant nest, this one by the kitchen door, cupped by a bend in the drainpipe and sheltered by the deck light. But their hard work was again for naught. Simon spotted them, jumped the deck rail in happy hunting anticipation, and they again deserted a brand-new home.

Taking a shower the following week, I noticed a bird repeatedly swooping past the small, high bathroom window. After I was cleaned and dressed, I went outside to check. I might have guessed – more new home construction. She was not a robin – that much I could tell.

I grew used to her activities whenever my partner and I gardened on the driveway side of the house. She often watched us with a friendly look, hopping on a low branch of a nearby tree, then using it as a launching pad to fly to her construction site and eventual new digs. The nest was quite a bit higher, deeper and more tightly woven than her would-be robin neighbors’ home. My partner identified her, tentatively, as an Eastern phoebe. (Confession: Were we looking at two birds? Mom and Dad? I don’t know.)

Mr. House Finch feeds the missus, who is incubating eggs. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The following week, I was watering the garden when I noticed that Mr. and Mrs. Robin’s first home was no longer deserted; a mysterious new couple had moved in. These new tenants were shy, flying off at my slightest sound or movement. I had to wonder: Why did they pick a house on such a busy corner? Right by the front door, subject to daily visits from the mail carrier, the neighbors … Still, I noticed that Mr. Mystery Bird had a stylish red-tinged head and that he was very devoted, tirelessly bringing his lady love tasty treats as she settled into her new home.

June 2 dawned a sad day in ways large and small. Large: protests against the death of George Floyd around the country and threats from the White House to deploy the military to shut them down. Small: A nestling barely the size of my pinkie, covered in down, lay smashed on the asphalt under the phoebe nest. I gently picked the body up and moved her to a nearby garden bed, setting her down on a patch of soft moss under a waving green fern.

Several times that afternoon, as I tapped on my keyboard, I saw Mrs. Phoebe on the deck’s stairway newel post just outside my office window. I swear she was looking at me: Grief-stricken mom knew what I’d done and was saying thank you. When I mentioned this to my partner, he called me “whimsical.”

This chick fledged early from the Eastern phoebe’s nest under the eaves, and hung out for several minutes on the doormat by the front door. Turns out, she’d assumed a false identity. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

Great excitement on June 7, or maybe what passes for excitement during a lockdown. A big fluffy brown chick fledged from the phoebe nest. He spent the next two days running his parents ragged, cheeping all over the yard and demanding dinner, what I interpreted as, “Right now!” We saw him on the deck railing, on a low-hanging dead tree branch and on the roof of the shed. He stood at the front-door threshold for some 10 minutes, looking straight at me through the glass as though I were some weird-looking giant bird that might invite him in and feed him a nice meal of worms. He was young and confused and – this was weird – already bigger than his parents.

The day after the nestling fledged, former Maine Audubon Executive Director Thomas Urquhart visited my yard at my invitation to help identify my tenants. Appropriately masked and socially distant, we walked around the house together looking up. He brought binoculars. I carried “Birds of Maine” by Stan Tekiela. The shy birds, I learned, were house finches. And Thomas confirmed the Eastern phoebe ID, too.

Then came the bombshell reveal. The mystery of the dead chick solved, the enigma of the giant youngster revealed. The brown chick was no phoebe. He was a cowbird, and his mom was a killer.

Brood parasitism is what it’s called. Mama cowbird is a good-time girl. She lays her egg in somebody else’s nest (the phoebe is a favorite target) and off she goes, clubbing, presumably. No diapers and midnight feedings for her. The chances for the actual phoebe chicks are slim, I read, as the infant cowbird hogs – to mix metaphors – much of the food his credulous step-parents provide.

Crestfallen, I told Thomas how I’d been rooting for that cheeping brown ball of fluff. A cowbird? I wailed. It’s a cruel world, he said wryly. “It’s nature’s way.”

But my Eastern phoebes were among the lucky ones. Two babes were still in the nest; every day, I worriedly listened for their quiet chirping to reassure myself they hadn’t expired. As the days went by, their black heads rose higher and higher out of the nest and my bathroom window grew ever more streaked with guano. On the morning of June 15, I went out to check on “my chicks,” as I’d come to think of them, and smiled at their adorable black heads. By lunchtime, there was just one. By dinnertime, the nest was empty, and I was unexpectedly dejected. I never saw them again.

Trixie the cat intently watches the outdoor activities through a glass door. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The kids grew up fast, but not fast enough for Trixie, my cat. I should probably not admit that I let her sit outside when I am home, even though I know it’s very wrong. She’s a lady of a certain age now and, as far as I can tell, displays no interest in birds; she mostly enjoys sitting on the deck in the sun. But I asked Simon’s family to keep him inside until the baby birds had a fighting chance – a big ask – and in the interest of fairness, I promised to keep Trixie indoors, too. In the meanwhile, I am placating the neighbors with baked goods and apologies. Our cats, like us, are in lockdown, and they have made it very clear they don’t like the situation.

Minutes after I wrote the above, an email came in from Urquhart. “I looked up phoebe nesting practices to see how long fledging takes (16 days) and found that they also typically have two clutches. So you may get some more!” he said. I wrote back in alarm: My cat will never forgive me. “It will make her more spiritual!” he replied.

A few mornings before the phoebes flew, the house finches celebrated the arrival of their own little bundles of joy. I can’t yet see how many are in their second-hand nest. But when mom and dad feed them, I can hear them from my dining room table. They make a racket.

The bird families aren’t my only new friends this spring. While I have been working from home, we’ve had visits from foxes, possums and a giant toad. Has all this drama – abandoned homes, blended families, greedy stepchildren, birth and death – played out around me every spring? Am I normally so preoccupied with work, with chores, with new restaurants and getting to the gym that my animal neighbors are invisible?

And is there a word for the guilt I feel that the pandemic, which has brought so much anxiety, illness and loss, has brought me this joy – the space and time to see the ordinary, extraordinary, wild and beautiful world that’s right here under my nose?


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