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Michael Perry: Surviving on determination and chance

July 4, 2017 GMT

This morning the gray rainscape was brightened by the sight of a dusky red mother cardinal pecking across the driveway outside my window. She was flanked by a pair of birds her same size. They were tan and of similar configuration. It took me a moment to realize they were her offspring. The clincher came when she turned toward one and it gawped its face wide open. The mother popped her beak down the youngster’s gullet and deposited whatever it was she had pecked off the damp pavement.

On she hopped and on she pecked, the children tagging close behind. Every few feet she stopped, turned, and stuffed one or the other maw. In light of their size the younger birds looked ludicrous not fending for themselves. I was reminded of adolescents wandering helplessly through a well-stocked kitchen, waiting for hamburgers to drop from the light sockets and string cheese to pour out the faucets.

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It lightened my heart to see the youngsters thriving, however. Last year a robin laid eggs in a nest not three feet off the ground in a spruce tree down by the pole barn, and while my younger daughter enjoyed checking the eggs, she got a dose of cold nature when a windstorm upended the whole works before hatching, leaving nothing but a frayed nest and chips of eggshell blue in the grass. Another robin has nested in the yard this year, a good fifteen feet up in a young but sturdy maple. I can’t see the eggs, but I can see her up there resolutely set. So far, so good.

Then there were the wrens who built a nest in my office window, packing a narrow space between the sill and air conditioner with sticks and pine needles (and, I am told by the internet, spider egg sacs … excuse me while I check my office chair and shudder). It was a bad place for a nest but they had it well homesteaded by the time I discovered them, and over the next few weeks I came to love their burbling song — such bright noise from such brown birds — although I had to work hot because every time I turned the air conditioner on, Mama wren fled. I’d rather be sweaty than guilty, so I rationed my cool-downs. Two days ago I heard a thump and the wrens scolding. When I exited the office a cat was hanging by both forepaws from the windowsill, the nest was pulled apart, and a barely-feathered wren chick was weakly waving its wings. Before I could intervene the chick was eaten.

The following day I hung a wren house within view of the office window. Amends, I suppose. Or hope. I enjoyed writing to wrensong and hope I may again. Birds and baby birds in springtime are a lesson in acceptance. Nature makes no investment in care or kindness. Your garden variety bird survives on determination and chance. The father cardinal and his bright red feathers, for whatever reason, are nowhere to be seen.