Nests in Winter

Magnolia NestThis has been an unusual January in more ways than you can shake a stick at, as my grandmother used to say. Near the start of the month, there were those exceedingly warm days, rife with blue skies and balmy breezes. In fact, the Monday of that week was downright hot: 81 almost-sweltering degrees on campus, according to more than one temperature gauge. Considering that not two weeks before, we'd been scraping ice off our windshields with our defunct ATM cards, it was downright spooky.

Still, there's been some winter since then: nights that begged for a down blanket or two, frosty evenings, a few more windshield-scraping mornings. On fog-free, cloudless days, the skies have been that endless blue of winter. One day, I slip out for a quick, leg-stretching stroll, the fresh invigorating air so welcome after the limp inside-the-building air. Skeletal patterns of the deciduous trees spill across the vibrant sky, bare branches in knobby arabesques, small clumps of blackened leaves caught in nodes of crossed limbs and slanting branches. As I come down the creek trail from the Butterfly Garden, passing the Native Plant Propagation Shadehouse, there is a waiting stillness, a quietness broken only by the few quick trills of a finch or the distant quackery of ducks and geese taking off and landing on The Ponds, their personal aqua-airport. The creek is a dry, rocky-bottomed ravine, plants have retreated into themselves, creatures are slow and hidden. Bird NestIt's the dormant season; life seems to be on pause. One particularly dense clump of leaves in the de-nuded buckeye tree catches my eye; no, not actually leaves: a nest, twiggy, exposed, empty, silent.

Nests astound me. How can instinct alone account for these sturdy constructions? Consider the skill of interlocking twigs and branches to create a supportive structure, the art of weaving and interweaving grass stalks, leaf stems, moss, lichens; the inventive use of human detritus such as gift-ribbon, twine, newspaper strips, magnetic-tape strands; the ingenious daubing of mud to hold it all together; the search for the soft inner linings of lamb's wool, dog hair, fluffy down to cradle eggs and nestlings. Think of hummingbirds finding the right combination of spider silk and lichen leaves to create their spongy, accommodating nest. It all smacks of deliberation and choice, of a certain creative intelligence, even if only rudimentary, to build these sheltering nurseries. Of course, we recognize our own "nesting instincts" when, as new parents, we are compelled to create a space for the incoming baby, whether an entire room of its own, a set-aside corner of a bedroom, or even, as my grandmother once did, a dresser drawer padded with soft towels and clean ticking. Somewhere, somehow a spot must be made for the arriving infant. We cruise the baby equipment aisles, stalk thrift stores and garage sales, rifle through the attics of our parents and grandparents in much the same way that birds cruise the fields and meadows, poke around the shrubs and trees, pick through leaf piles. Mysteriously propelled in ways impossible to resist, we're all looking for the right materials.

Nest on GroundThis nest sits is empty and forlorn, waiting, it seems to me, for the return of some birdy parents, though in fact, birds rarely use last year's model, preferring to build anew each year. This is a healthy practice, as a new nest won't have any residual ectoparasites to infest the young, or the strong odors of an old nest, which would attract predators. I'm guessing this is a robin's nest, judging from the size and shape and twiggy decor, though it could belong to any other passerine (perching) bird of similar size.

Our campus is deep in a bird habitat, rich enough to provide the shelter and space necessary for offspring. We are lucky that way. We see the mud nests and nestlings of the swallows in the eaves of Salazar and Ives, cup-nests in the buckeye tree, the new crop of ducklings and goslings on The Ponds. I've seen other nests in trees, on ledges, on the ground, of finches perhaps, or towhees; difficult to say without seeing the inhabitants. Last fall, a student brought me the discarded nest of a hummingbird, a tiny thing that sat dwarfed in the palm of my hand and yet it had held two eggs, each the size of a dime. Or rather, not even the size of dimes. This ingenious nest is a miracle of construction, stretching to accommodate the eggs and then the chicks as they hatch and grow, like a comfortable sock. I'm duly impressed, because even with the aid of two sticks and an instruction book I sure can't knit socks. Here this mite of a thing creates one out of sticky spider silk with only a slender beak and beating wings.

Old NestIt's possible that this nest in the buckeye tree might be re-used by a different bird species (nuthatches, perhaps, or a finch family), but over time, it will disintegrate and drop out of the tree. Soon enough all things will pass, as grandmothers are wont to say, and so too will this dry winter- in fast, is already passing. Buds are waiting to swell on branchlets, birds are considering the long journey north and we will get on with another busy season of birdy construction.

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