Earlier this spring, a beautiful redbird husband and his slightly less red, less beautiful redbird wife showed up in our backyard. As other birds have in the past, the couple seemed to take a liking to a tall shrub right outside of our den window. It is the same shrub we hang our hummingbird feeder in, which has welcomed many tiny, fluttering visitors each fall.
Though my husband, Frank, and I have not started wearing black knee-high socks with white tennis shoes or carrying around binoculars and bird books (yet), we do enjoy having an up-close-and-personal view of these various winged creatures from the comfort of our sofa and recliner.
After a couple of weeks we noticed the ladybird began carrying twigs and pieces of grass up to one of the branches in the shrub. It soon became obvious she was beginning to build a nest. She would even get help from her husband from time to time, much to our surprise.
At first, Frank and I started mom-shaming the mama bird. It seemed to be taking her an eternity to build the nest and it didn’t look to be a very good one. Plus, the branch she and her boo had chosen seemed a bit exposed. And they seemed to not even notice there were two fairly quiet adult humans and two really loud child humans watching their every move from behind a piece of glass only three feet away. Had we gotten a couple of crackhead bird parents? Should we report them to Bird Services? Or were they just really dumb?
As the days wore on and the nest took more form, we determined we had judged our little birds too harshly. Mama was indeed building a fine nest. And it wasn’t as exposed as we initially thought it would be.
It actually made me think back to my own “nesting” when I was pregnant with both of my children. How each of their rooms started out totally empty, but how I slowly filled them over the course of nine months with one piece at a time — crib, glider, rug, bedding — until they were complete. And I even had a little help from my non-feathered husband each time, too. I hope no birds were judging us from the outside.
Shortly after they put the finishing touches on their nest, we were able to take a quick peek while they were away to discover there were three little eggs in it. Don’t worry, we didn’t touch or disturb it in any way. We certainly didn’t want to do anything to prevent us from seeing one of Mother Nature’s most spectacular shows.
While waiting for the big day, Frank pulled up the foremost authority on birds — ahem, Wikipedia — and read out some Northern Cardinal (the kind of redbirds we guessed our pair to be) factoids.
During courtship they sing together and the male will often feed the female beak to beak with grains or insects. Awwww! How romantic!
They mate for life and stay together year round, having three to four “broods” of babies each year. So this wasn’t just some bootie bird call (the ol’ fertilize and fly) for our male bird hottie, the kind of playa I had originally pegged him to be. He really loves his girl, no matter how many times she complains he just isn’t bringing her the right materials for the nest. They are in it together for the long haul.
A couple of weeks later, right around Easter, we noticed both of the birds bringing food back to the nest. Sure enough, three baby birds had been born! We watched out our window as Mama and Daddy tended to their young’uns.
We knew we wouldn’t have much time with our little birdies, as our crack research indicated they would leave the nest 9-11 days after hatching. But we could enjoy our limited time together.
About four or five days after their birth, we were getting ready to leave on a Spring Break trip to the beach. I checked on them when I first woke up and they were up bright and early chirping away, waiting for breakfast.
I got busy packing and didn’t pay much attention to them the rest of the morning. I got the kids and the bags loaded into the car. Frank was working and was going to join us later. As I walked back through the house to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything, I stopped in the den because Mama Bird was sitting on the windowsill, a first for her. The bird who had never paid us any attention at all seemed to be looking in the window and staring at me straight in the eye.
Were we having some sort of special mother-to-mother moment? Or was she trying to thank us for our hospitality? Whatever it was, I thought we had a connection for a brief moment — well, as much as a wild bird and a human can have. Or maybe I was the one smoking some sort of crack, metaphorically speaking, of course. Probably the latter, I determined. So I headed to the beach with the kiddos without giving it much more thought.
Frank arrived a few hours after us. After he got settled in, he said, “I think something got the baby birds. When I went by the house to get my stuff, they weren’t in the nest anymore and the Mama and Daddy were flying around it like crazy.”
All kinds of thoughts started flying through my head. What sort of wretched creature could have done this to those precious babies? Maybe our birds were just overachievers and left the nest early. Or maybe that was a really bad place for a nest after all. Or they were kind of dumb and this was a display of natural selection.
Whatever the case, why does nature have to be so cruel?
We traded our bird watching hats for our detective ones and pieced together the timeline, determining the multiple bird-icide must have occurred before I left. Though I had that moment with Mama, the last time I saw the baby birds alive and well was early that morning. I now think when she was staring at me, she wasn’t trying to have some sort of interspecies maternal moment. Nope. She was looking at me as a suspect! Which was also heartbreaking.
I was genuinely saddened by this turn of events, as was Frank. We had grown quite attached to our little bird family.
When we returned from our trip, the Mom and Dad were nowhere to be found. All that was left was the nest. I examined it CSI style for any clues. There was no murder weapon. No blood. No bodies. The crime scene looked mostly undisturbed. All that remained were a few leftover pieces of shell from the eggs.
We learned, from further reading, the predators most likely responsible are snakes, cats, blue jays or squirrels. We’ve identified a few suspects in the backyard, but none of them are talking. Though I do have my eye on a particularly obese squirrel.
The case remains unsolved.
And the nest remains outside our window as empty as our hearts.