I’m stalking eggs. The daily ritual of poking my head into nests, bothering brooding birds. The bluebirds’ first nest earlier this spring was raided by the house sparrows—bright broken shells, yolk smeared, on the grass in front of the nesting box. They’ve got a second nest now, with five eggs, and I have a wishful thought that if I check on the eggs obsessively, they’ll make it to birdhood. As I approach the box, male bluebird sings a warning to female bluebird, who waits inside until I tap the wood before she bursts out, a blur of blue-grey. Their nest is a tidy coil of fine dried grass.
Their neighbor, in the box next door, is one of four house wren nests around the property. House wrens are bossy birds, scoldy and bold. Sometimes the wren pokes her head out of the box to watch me, then flies at me as I get close. Sometimes she nestles down, waits for me to open the door to peek in, then whacks me with her wings as she explodes out of the house. As I near the nests, I anticipate this blast of bird, but it still always unnerves me. I wonder if Hitchcock should’ve chosen house wrens instead. House wrens don’t always get along well with bluebirds, sometimes raiding their nests like house sparrows (is it something about the word house?), but I’m hoping these parties will stay peaceful. House wrens males are slutty birds, known to keep more than one female in nests, but they can’t always feed all the young when the eggs hatch. And there are a lot of eggs—seven or eight in each nest. I didn’t mean to allow all these house wrens to nest in the boxes. I usually clean out most attempts before they really get going. But once the egg cup is in place, no dumping nests. Their nests consist of a pile of twigs—usually bits of dried wild grape vine—topped with a cup of finer material, like pine needles and feathers, not always the wren’s. The nests often have silky white clumps of spider eggs incorporated into them, which some scientists think provide an antidote to the mites that prey on the tiny hatchlings; the spiders hatch with the birds and consume the mites. My house wren nests also contain black plastic twine and, ironically, strips of worn Mylar “bird scare” tape.
There are also a mess of robin nests, mud-packed with eclectic material—a string from a bag of dog food, a bit of clematis vine, dried hosta leaves and iris fronds, clear plastic film. Sometimes in the past, I’ve put out scraps of fabric and string in the spring for colorful nest building. Robins aren’t subtle about where their nests lie. They bombard passersby, cheeping. Soft grasses line their sturdy nests, kept pristine even after the eggs hatch. Baby robins emerge all mouth, and eventually grow into their beaks. When I was a little girl, we raised two orphaned baby robins, and I remember pulling apart worms for their always-begging throats.
I’m sure there are other nests in the yard right now—catbird, blue jay, cardinal, yellow-shafted flicker, goldfinch, perhaps even an orchard or Baltimore oriole or a hummingbird—but they’ve missed my inspection. I search for the hanging baskets of the orioles or the brilliant tree sparrow nest, lined with the bird’s iridescent feathers, trying to conjure them with my desire.
We think of a nest as a cozy place, and I suppose it is, but a bird barely occupies it, only for a month or so, and while the babies grow just enough. Then it’s abandoned or recycled. Last year, the cedar waxwing built a nest in the ginkgo tree. For their second nest of the season, they dismantled the original and moved it to another branch in the tree.
The reason for the nest is the final event of leaving the nest. The fledgling exits never to return—or doesn’t exit. In old nests, I’ve found tiny skeletons of birds that didn’t make it out, or a single blue egg that never hatched, still nestled—that verb, soft as assurance—in careful grass.