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Washington Voices

Front Porch: Empty nest brings hoping for the best

Thu., July 18, 2013

This is about an empty nest. A real one.

I don’t know how this happened, but birds seem to be pecking their way into my heart lately. Recently there has been Miss Chicken, the rescue chicken I’ve written about for three years and whose doings remain a part of my life today. And then there was the recent drama in our yard.

One day in mid-June as I walked back from our mailbox across the street, I spotted some movement on the front lawn. There sat three baby robins, all downy and peeping loudly as two adult birds fretted back and forth overhead. Clearly the babies had fallen from a nest in the large pine tree whose branches cast shadows on much of the lawn.

We didn’t know what to do, as we couldn’t see the nest in the tree, and even if we could, however would we return the birds so high up into a ponderosa pine tree? As we considered what to do, Bruce put them into a shoe box, only to get dive-bombed by one of the adults. I’m guessing it was Mama.

Not being very familiar with wild birds, I was amazed to see just how wide these little puff balls could open their mouths, so wide in fact that their entire bodies were obliterated. Looking down on them in the box, all I could see was gaping maw and not a hint of bird body below.

Also guessing here, but I suspect that’s Mother Nature’s way of making sure Mama has a large enough target in which to stuff bugs or worms or whatever is on the day’s menu.

We thought the babies would have their best chance of being accepted back by their parents – and hence, survival – if they were somehow in the tree again. So I got an empty hanging flower pot, one with a molded plastic hook atop the three arms, and placed some pine needles and grass clippings in the bottom.

We gently put the little birds into the makeshift nest as it sat on the ground, but the most active birdie kept hopping out, much to the very vocal consternation of Mama and the frustration of Bruce, who kept having to retrieve it, all the while being buzzed by Mama.

When we placed some pine needles loosely over the little birds, they quieted down. We didn’t want to try hoisting them upward only to have them flop out onto the ground in the process.

Bruce tied a garden spade to the end of a slender rope and hurled it over the highest branch in the pine tree that he could reach. He kept wriggling the rope until the spade descended to the ground, leaving the rope over the branch.

He tied the other end of the rope to the fixed hook and pulled the improvised nest up as close to the branch as possible, then he tied the spade end of the rope off to the trunk.

We figured we’d done the best we knew how. We watched from inside the house as the two adult birds and the babies chirped back and forth. Mama and Papa would fly to nearby branches but did not go to the new nest. The next morning, we still heard peeping and still saw the adults nearby. The second morning, one adult was perched briefly on the rim of the flower pot/nest.

And then in the next few days it got quiet. No peeping. No adult robins nearby. Uh-oh, we thought. Bruce went outside to lower the nest to see if the babies had died, but as he began to untie the rope from the trunk, from out of nowhere, he got dive-bombed. We were so happy, especially as we were then able to hear those resumed happy chirping sounds from the nest. We abandoned the idea of lowering the nest for a look-see.

The next morning, after a heavy rain, there in the same place where we had first seen the babies in the lawn, was the original nest, obviously knocked loose by the wind. We debated whether we should lower the replacement nest and put the Mama-made nest inside – but then we figured the birds would probably do better without being messed with further by humans.

And then it got quiet all over again. Several days went by. Bruce wanted to check the nest. I urged waiting. If the babies had died, there was nothing we could do at that point. I preferred waiting and worrying rather than knowing the worst for sure.

But eventually, we did have to look. When Bruce lowered the nest, it was empty! The nesting material had been matted down and smoothed out, not quite as slick as in the original nest, but clearly it had been tended to. Apparently Mama had done her work at night.

Now I suppose it’s possible that something bad had happened, but there was no evidence of it – no bloody feathers, no nest torn apart, no evidence other than that a bird family had been able to make a home in that impromptu nest just long enough. And when the babies were able, they flew away – just as they were supposed to.

That’s what I choose to believe happened. And now as I return daily from the mailbox I can’t help but scan the front lawn, checking to see what might be there. After all, I now have an empty nest available for hoisting, just in case.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at Previous columns are available at

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