Stained glass birds

Stained-glass birds. Jesse RadonskiCC BY

Elizabeth, Elspeth, Betsy, and Bess

They all went together to seek a bird’s nest.

They found a bird’s nest with five eggs in,

They all took one and left four in.

—Mother Goose

It’s the summer of birds.

They became a recurring motif in my summer writing workshop. 2018 is actually The Year of the Bird, marking the 100th anniversary of major bird protection laws. I’ve discovered that I’ve written enough bird stories to give them their own category for this blog. I am reading a stunning, lyrical book recently recommended to me, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. I recalled the friendly little parrot I saw at a store a while back, and thought—for maybe seven seconds—about how nice it would be to have another pet bird.

And so they came. As if summoned.

House finches, they are. A pair built a nest in my lantern porch light fixture. I would not let my family turn on that light at night for fear of burning the birds. A brood hatched, grew quickly, and was gone; here’s a fledgling tarrying behind on the last day:


Once the nest was empty, our younger son, Cadillac Man, removed it and my husband had the house power washed (a thing well past due).

A day later, I heard a commotion on the front porch.

Birds. Very loud ones.

The front window blinds were up; I could see a male finch, a soft dusting of red on his breast, hopping to and fro along the white railing like an Olympic gymnast on a balance beam (forgive the mixing of genders here but that is what he looked like). He paused to stare right back at me. A speckled brown female flew to him, then instantly away again. Two or three more finches skittered nearby. The collective chatter seemed highly agitated—consternation is the word that came to mind.

It’s the nest, I thought. They’ve come back and it’s gone.

They had to be the same mother and father. I wondered if the others were part of their newly-grown brood. Or a support group. Some sort of council?  They seemed to be consulting over the vanished nest. Maybe problem-solving? Collaborating? Making decisions?

For two days, the lively bird debate continued.

Then it died down.

And a piece of pine straw appeared in the bottom of the lantern.

From the window I saw both male and female bringing more pieces, saw the male drop his on the porch floor, fly down to retrieve it, and hover like a hummingbird to work it into place.

My older son, The Historian, passing through the hallway, stopped beside me to watch: “It’s amazing how they know to do this.”

“What’s going on?” his father called from the living room.

“The birds are building another nest in the porch light,” I told him.

“Oh, no they’re not,” he said. “We just had the house washed. The porch was disgusting.”

He went to the kitchen, rummaged in a drawer. He went to the porch, pulled out the three pieces of pine straw.

And put aluminum foil in the lantern:

It sent the finches into a frenzy. For another day, the loud bird-chatter resumed. I found a bit of foil on the porch floor; had one of them tried to tug the stuff loose?

And I worried about the birds cutting themselves on the aluminum, about time elapsing when they clearly needed their nest. The female must be getting ready to lay more eggs, or why all this fuss?

What would they do?

The next day when I opened the front door to go get the mail, I heard a rush of wings and I knew.

The wreath on the door.

Sure enough, on the top of the wreath lay a few long grasses.

I chose to keep this a secret for several days, until:

“All right, you guys,” I announced to my menfolk, “we now have a nest on our wreath with an egg in it. No opening the front door until these birds are gone.”

I may have also mentioned, nonchalantly, that it is illegal in the United States to remove a nest containing eggs.

And then I worried even more: Is the wreath secure enough? How many more eggs will there be? Will they—will the babies—be safe?

The nest made me want to cry. At the perfection of it, at the dried dandelions laced through it like deliberate decoration, an artist’s touch. I wanted to cry at the determination of these birds to live on my porch, how they persevered in rebuilding their home from scratch. They do not know that they built on the door of my home as well as on my heart, where there’s an especially tender spot these days for little creatures and their well-being. I still mourn a small dog, grown old and frail, that I could not save. A rawness in my soul that has yet to grow new skin.

While these birds do not really need me, they spark a sense of ownership and protection. They’re in my realm now, in my sphere of influence.

All I can give them is sanctuary.

I remember how, when I was a child riding in the backseat of a car watching the cityscape give way to fields and forests, a little green sign appeared:


I puzzled over this: Where’s the bird church?

It took some time to understand that birds can’t be hunted here, that sanctuary means safe place. 

A place to be, grow, flourish, and fly. Something every living thing needs.

Sanctuary was the word I chose to describe the writing workshop just a month ago. The workshop that had the bird motif running through it. A safe place to think, explore, write, share.

So now, every morning, when the sun is new, when shadows are sharp on the ground, while the dew is still sparkling on the grass, I walk from the garage door to visit the sanctuary. Mama Finch sees me coming as soon as I round the corner; she flies out of the nest, bobbing through the air without a sound. There’s a reverent silence, a holy hush, in sanctuaries, you know. She waits on the rooftop while I quickly admire her handiwork. I go before she’s troubled. I’ve learned from these visits that she lays her eggs between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m.

As soon as my husband and I returned from a trip to the beach, he asked: “Have you checked on your eggs?”

“Yes,” I said, smiling at his words. My eggs.

I have four.


Stay tuned for the hatching announcement.

While writing this post I could not help thinking how “sanctuary” applies to teaching and instructional coaching. As with the house finches—which are symbolic of joy, happiness, optimism, variety, diversity, high energy, creativity, celebration, honoring resources, and enjoying the journey—a safe place to be, grow, flourish, and fly comes through concentrated, collaborative effort. Right now my finches are singing. A song, perhaps, that all of humanity still needs to hear.

20 thoughts on “Sanctuary

  1. It strikes me that sanctuary is exactly what you provide so many people: your family (of course), your students and other teachers, your flock at church, your friends, your little bird family. What a fine attribute.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Another exquisite post. It strikes me that your calm and patient noticing of life around you led you to really understand what was happening with the birds and see them not as a nuisance but as something precious to protect. I love the idea of learning communities as sanctuaries as well- the idea that you are safe here and can bloom, be yourself, grow, even change. I think the birds knew they were safe with you and that’s why they were so tenacious in using your porch.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Perhaps I am more aware, as I grow older, of honoring life and the lives of those who come into my “sphere.” As with these birds, we have our students for such a little while. I am delighted that you love the connection of learning communities to sanctuaries; we cannot thrive if we are not safe first. I like to think the birds sensed this about me and were drawn here – thank you, Kathleen.


  3. I agree with the comments above; you are a friend of Nature, and the birds sense that quality. “Sanctuary” is such a timely, political word these days. It was nice to read it with its true meaning of safe harbor–and to see the lovely pictures of your personal bird sanctuary. On a related note–I had my first flying owl sighting this past week, as I walked our hike-n-bike trail in the pre-dawn light. So amazing to see their silent shadows fly above me as they went to roost!

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    • “Sanctuary” IS a political word; extremely perceptive of you. It helped that I had recently reread a historical novel in which Elizabeth Woodville sought sanctuary after the death of her husband, King Edward IV. Opens the door to much discussion of modern times … I thought about weaving in that thread and decided the post would grow long and unwieldy if I tried, so thanks for thinking and speaking of it! About your owl – I get a real sense of the moment and the coolness of the shadows passing over. I would love to have been there. I really did not know how much a “friend of Nature” I am, how much Nature speaks to me, until I started writing regularly. It’s been a major revelation. Have you written more about your owls yet? I want to read it!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much. The nest and the eggs really are living art to me; I hardly dare to breathe when I see them. Since the last egg was laid, I am making myself scarce so the mother can sit on them and keep them warm. I am so hoping for a safe hatching and to share when the babies come.


  4. For many years we had a family of robins that would return to the nest they built behind the speaker On our patio. From our bathroom window we could see mama sitting on her eggs. We saw little heads poking up looking for food. We also saw little birds take their first flight. We suffered empty nest syndrome when they were gone. Love your post.

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  5. Oh, what a lovely person you are to protect and provide sanctuary for the finch family. And I love the comparison to our educational communities as safe places “…to be, grow, flourish, and fly comes through concentrated, collaborative effort.” I’m already looking forward to hatching time!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You honor me so with your words – I feel honored, somehow, that these endearing, cheery little birds have chosen to live here. Many people would think them only a messy nuisance but I find them beautiful and amazing. I continue to learn about them and from them. Little winged messengers of life. I’m delighted to know that line about collaborative effort resonated with you! It is natural and simple in the finches; sometimes so hard for humans. Thank you, Ramona. I hope these babies hatch in a few more days! I will be relieved!


  6. The summer of birds! We added a few bird houses to our yard this year and I’ve loved watching the birds fly back and forth. I peek in, from a distance, hoping to spot babies. We also found a few nests in the yard and I’ve marveled at their construction. I loved your description of the nests and your attachment. I look forward to hearing the news of the hatching.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I bet your yard is lovely. I hope you will see some babies; what a wonder that would be for your girls – for you even have one who shares a bird name! I’ve loved Wren’s name since I first read it (though all their names are beautiful. I expect them all to be artists of some kind. With such a creative & nurturing mom). Yes, here’s to a hatching soon; I’ll breathe a little easier! I feel like a bird-grandmother!


  7. Birds have woven through my summer as well and among other things, I’ve written about the wonder of a found nest. Your slice is beautiful and rich and leaves me with a deep appreciation for the wonders of nature and for your writing skills.Lucky finches…lucky you…lucky us! Sanctuary is the perfect word…

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