Wednesday, April 18, 2012

the Phoebe Wars

Skill and sweat built the house where I grew up -- the skill and sweat of my father (left), his father, and my mother (below), guided by blueprints scratched on the back of an old window shade.

Almost before the roof was on, another kind of building was in progress. Two little grey birds with instinctive skill and determination of their own were slinging mud and moss under the back porch overhang. They cemented their nest to the side of ours - a union that would last more than forty years.

By a bird's reckoning it was a perfect location. It was a foil for cats, eight feet off the ground with no climbable surfaces below. It was totally sheltered from the weather by the porch floor above and protected on three sides by the cellar-door alcove. With nearby woods the supply of insects was endless and mud for the nest was readily available. In short it was phoebe paradise.

Every year since then, a pair of phoebes has happily dribbled mud somewhere on this house. Evidently phoebes are like salmon and earnest men - willing to swim against the current to reach their stream of origin. The opposing current in this case was my father who was determined to move them. Their preferred nesting spot was directly above the cellar door, which Dad used several times a day. He hated to disturb them once there were eggs involved and he worried the nest would fall if he inadvertently slammed the door. His only alternative was using the garage door. The roar of it always sent the phoebe flapping off to a nearby tree, leaving her four or five whitish eggs cooling alone.

My father spent a lot of time thinking about how to outwit those birds. He didn't want to hurt them. He was in fact a bird enthusiast who provided suet in net-bags and bird feeders overflowing with sunflower and other seed. These treats were set where they could be easily seen from the kitchen window where Dad breakfasted with binoculars and field guides.

But phoebes are members of the flycatcher family. They aren't interested in handouts. All they want are bugs: gnats, mosquitoes and flies on the hoof, caught right out of the air during angular sorties that put the maneuvers of an F-16 to shame. Unknown to the phoebe, my father admired them for their work ethic, for their domesticity, their agility and especially for their stubbornness. But he was stubborn too. And he wanted them to build somewhere else. He decided on swift preventative action in the early spring, before there were any eggs in the nest. So began the great Phoebe Wars of New Road.

First came the battle of the pie tins. Dad hung one on a string so it spun and whirled on every breeze right in front of the unfinished nest. So the Phoebe began building on the other side of the doorway. My father knocked the nest down. They built it again. He knocked it down again and hung a flurry of pie tins to wave and flap and bang together in the breeze. While not much impressed with the hardware, the Phoebes finally built over the living room window instead, a spot well out of my father's reach.

But the following spring they were back under the porch. Every year it's always their first choice. And with each succeeding season they seemed less and less impressed with the shiny, noisy decorations; so the size, variety and decibel-capacity of the deterrents increased accordingly. Eventually things escalated to sheet metal, old kitchen pans, chicken wire, strips of tin foil, usually arranged to rattle and clank like the Ghost of Christmas past. Although the Phoebe were indifferent to Dickens, knocking down the unfinished nest often won the day. Several years in a row they built a second nest over the living room window. Once they built over the front porch light.

One year my father went to knock down the nest but found it was way too late. Five open mouths with pink gullets pointed at him, emitting various squeaking sounds. He determined they all had lice and he dusted each of the baby birds with delousing powder, dusted the nest and lowered it into the bottom half of a plastic milk carton which he nailed back over the doorway. The adult birds came back flustered and scolding but fed the chicks anyway. Dad didn't bother them again that year.

During winter he got to thinking that the ledge on which the birds anchored their nest was very narrow, barely an inch in width. In spring he optimistically stretched heavy tinfoil over it with no success. The next year he built a triangular ledge filler-upper that ran the length of the door. He was fairly satisfied this would stop them. Any nesting material would just slide right off, like snow on a steep roof, he thought. But he overlooked one important aspect. The triangle was hollow and he hadn't plugged the ends. That year the Phoebes built inside it. They probably thought it was a bird house.

My father carried on his bird wars until he died in 1984. For their part, the Phoebe have continued to build under the back porch, though in recent years my mother has taken up the torch of moving them out. This spring she hung up a roll of chicken wire. When the birds began building inside it, she took it down. Amazingly, they started building again in a completely new location. Their latest nest sits in an elbow of drainpipe under the roof overhang in the crook of the ``L'' formed by the dining room and the kitchen. This spot might prove to be a new favorite.

While I can't kid myself that it's been the same Phoebes all this time, I'd wager its been a long line of descendants of the original pair - birds that returned here because they felt the first tickle of the night breeze while still damp from eggs pecked open in the shelter of the porch overhang. Some internal homing device brings them back from their winter travels. If only wandering humans could find their way home so easily.
-- Mar Walker , original date 1993