When death is all around be still, listen to the sound of birds
to hopes lost and found
here in the song life and grace abound
Backstory: House finches return year after year to build nests on my front door wreath. Every spring and summer, my porch becomes a bird sanctuary and nursery; I, a present but uninvolved custodian, watch it all unfolding from the periphery. This winter the little finch pair actually roosted in the wreath at night. That is a first. I imagined them nestled together in the grapevine, keeping each other warm, dreaming dreams of life to come. They started awfully early this season, building their nest in the wreath and laying at least four eggs before the last week of February. It was still cold. March arrived with gusting winds and sustained freezing temperatures; I worried about the tiny life on my door. During winter’s only snow this year, well before before spring officially arrived, the baby finches hatched. Because of the cold, I stayed away; I didn’t want to startle Mama Finch, who needed to be on the nest keeping her babies warm. I saw the hatchlings when they were a day or two old and didn’t check again for about three weeks…expecting they had fledged and possibly gone, as the happy singing and trilling bird-talk at my door had ceased. When I came around to check the nest, I found one fledgling dead, its little head drooped over the front of the nest, and another beautiful fledgling, so tiny, with such perfect little wings, enmeshed with the nest at the back—almost becoming part of the nest. This is another first: in all these generations of finches I’ve not known any babies to die. In fact, they usually stay in the nest after they can fly, seemingly unwilling to leave. I marvel at how they can still stuff themselves into it. Home sweet home…until now. Not wanting to leave the dead baby finches and fearing there were parasites or some disease in the nest, I removed the babies, placed them deep in a bed of leaves by the woods out back, and destroyed the old nest.
It broke my heart.
The parents must have been watching me…I read that birds mourn for their little lost ones.
They began rebuilding immediately. With urgency, Soon there was a perfect green nest artistically adorned with a long gray feather from some other bird, lined with layers of the softest, whitest fluff —wherever do they find this? And a week before Easter there were five—five!—new eggs.
They began hatching yesterday. I’ve been keeping close watch…and this is the first time I’ve caught a glimpse (just the very quickest glimpse) of a finch actually hatching.
The poem at the opening was inspired by one shared for VerseLove on Ethical ELA yesterday, coinciding with the hatching of these finch eggs: Why Do You Write Poems When Death is All Around Us?
The answer, for me, is a matter of awe: Life is all around, somehow overcoming, even singing at the door.
with thanks to Andy Schoenborn for sharing Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre’s poem yesterday and Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life story sharing-place
and to the finches for infusing my days with so much awe hope and notes of joy
Thank you for respecting my taped-up signs that say stay away from the front porch it’s a bird sanctuary again the house finches nested early on the door wreath I left for them Mama laid four tiny eggs in blue cold mohawked nestlings hatched in a snowfall by mid-March I thought the fledglings had all flown, for there was no more happy chatter-song at the door and when I checked I found two perfectly beautiful fledglings dead in the nest
how why what happened here
I placed them together in a deep pile of dry leaves at wood’s edge because birds do not bury their dead they are creatures of the air
I tore down the death-nest and my taped-up signs
and read online that birds grieve the death of their young
the next day blades of green grass appeared on the wreath where the nest had been
the day after that, more grass and flowered strands
scientists say that only the mother finch builds the nest but I am here to tell you that the father worked just as hard
in tandem they flew with string and fluff in their beaks chattering their architectural plans
in five days, recreating what was lost
and now in the most exquisitely-lined nest I’ve ever seen
there are new blue eggs
so thank you, Delivery People for reading my freshly-taped signs
this is a sacred little space where miracles of nature take place
******* with thanks to b.c. randall for today’s VerseLove invitation on Ethical ELA:
“Write today’s poem for someone else: the boy who bags your groceries, the neighbor who walks by your front window every day, that colleague or friend who has been on your mind. Craft the poem to be left for another to unwrap (a gift that we all need).”
On the fourth day of rebuilding after tragedy, here’s what the new house finch nest looks like:
In all the years of finches raising broods in my front door wreath, I have never seen a nest lined with such deep layers of fluff and feathers. The little blue eggs to come any morning now (prediction: the first one on Sunday) will be so well-cradled, so tenderly sheltered.
This week I read that birds mourn the loss of their young.
I believe it.
I also believe, looking at this nest, that my house finches are determined not to lose any more.
March 1: Auspices – discovery of an unusually early nest and eggs laid in February (with photo)
March 5: Eavesdropping – audio of the parent finches’ joyous chatter
March 14: Nestlings – likely hatched during a snowfall (with photo)
a favor or gift bestowed by God, thereby bringing happiness.
I could hardly wait to get home yesterday to check the progress of the new finch nest on my door wreath.
On Day Two, it now has the characteristic cup shape. It’s lined with white fuzz, a soft cushion for the precious eggs to come.
It is comprised almost exclusively of fresh green grass. The color of newness and life.
House finches are said to represent new beginnings.
Their nests always fill me with awe, and never more than now, watching the parents working together to rebuild immediately after two of their babies died in the previous nest, which I tore down. Confession: I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing. Nature is mighty, ever-resilient, wise; it is imbued with regenerative power. Yet there are so many delicate balances within it. I didn’t want to upset any of these. I am a mere student of these birds. They are the experts.
So to see this nest being built in the exact spot as the ill-fated former one is a gift. It sends my spirits soaring, exponentially.
House finches are considered symbols of joy. If you ever hear one singing, you understand why.
In some parts of the world, they’re called the blessing bird.
They chose my door years ago as the place to bring new life into the world. I now share the wonder of it with my seven-year-old granddaughter, our “nurture scientist.” Together we have witnessed the miracle of tiny life coming into existence and eventually taking flight. In a couple more seasons, her baby sister will be able to enjoy it, too.
After I took this photo of the new nest, rejoicing and wondering when the first egg will appear, I went into the house to find a mysterious package my husband had retrieved from the mailbox.
Neither of us had ordered anything.
I opened it…
A gift from a friend I met through writing, who reads about my finches each spring, who knows of the recent loss.
I am awed again.
A writing community is like a nest: a safe place especially created for growth, where we nurture one another and encourage each other to stretch our wings and fly.
It is here that we learn the true power of story and how it knits our hearts together. In the beginning, in the end, we are story.
To live it, write it, build it together, is a gift.
And the time for doing it is now. Today.
My love for the finches, like my love for writing, is inextricably woven through and through with gratitude for the blessings in my life. It’s all a song in my heart, greater than words.
Each day brings its own gifts. It’s up to us to see them, accept them, celebrate them.
And to give in return.
Beyond the horizon Lies infinite possibility Eyes cannot see. Sky meeting sea Sea meeting sky… I fly ever onward Nested and rested in the Giver of every good and perfect gift.
Today, there might be an egg.
******** with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the monthlong Slice of Life Story Challenge
On Monday afternoon I came home to check the nest on my front door wreath, expecting that finch fledglings had flown. They are the earliest brood I’ve ever known: four tiny blue eggs laid during the last week of February and hatching by the second week of March; I discovered a pile of fuzzy gray, mohawked nestlings after a snowfall.
By Monday, as the temperatures finally warmed, I hadn’t heard their happy chatter at my door in a day or so. I assumed the babies had left home; it was just over two weeks after hatching, which is normal.
But that afternoon I found two perfectly beautiful fledglings dead in the nest.
First time this has happened in all the years of house finches adopting my porch as their sanctuary. No real clue as to why. Inexperienced parents? Doubtful, as nesting in my wreath is an established pattern and the finches are quite prolific. Disease? Maybe; but where were the other two babies? Sustained freezing temperatures? Possible. Survival of the fittest? Probable.
No sign of the parents. Had something happened to them? Had they abandoned these little ones? If so, why?
I stood before the nest, icy shock quickly melting into grief.
It had to be dealt with…
Armed with paper towels and cloths, I extricated the tiny lifeless babies. I carried them to the edge of the woods out back and covered them, together, in a deep bed of dry leaves. I couldn’t just throw them away; they had been living things. They had been growing. I couldn’t bury them; birds don’t bury their dead and furthermore, they’re creatures of the air.
They never got to fly.
I bid the babies goodbye and told them I was sorry that this was the best I knew to do for them, to let nature reabsorb them.
Then, the nest.
Finches sometimes reuse them.
If I were a mother bird, however, I wouldn’t want to reuse a nest where two of my precious babies had died.
I decided the nest—every one a unique masterpiece, this one threaded with tiny dried flowers and padded with white hair from some mammal—had to go. In case there were mites or germs or traces of decay…
It should be burned, I thought, as I pulled it away from the wreath.
Instead I wrapped it, bagged it, and threw it in the trash.
I almost threw the whole wreath in the trash, too, but just as I took it down, I remembered how, all winter long, two little birds slept in this wreath together at night, keeping each other warm, sometimes startling me by flying out when I opened the door.
No doubt it was the finch parents, staking their claim until nesting season.
I couldn’t throw the wreath away.
I guess…I know… well, just hoping…
I shook out the wreath and hung it back up.
Monday evening, I was forlorn. I read everything I could find online about bird babies dying in nests. I read that bird parents grieve for their lost ones. I peeked out of the front blinds; I am sure I saw a little shadowy figure on the porch railing, just as it saw me and darted away, without a sound.
I didn’t sleep well.
Tuesday morning, as I got dressed for work, the silence was depressing. This is the time I’d hear them most, the parents with their song-chatter, the chorusing baby voices…
So I went outside with my Merlin Bird Sound ID app. It picked up robins, a mockingbird, a Carolina wren, a chipping sparrow, a mourning dove…no house finches.
I drove to work heavy-hearted, knowing that there are countless other birds for the savoring and that in the human world incomparable horrors are steadily unfolding…yet that’s why the finches matter. One bit of joy that softens the edges of the blade. A little song of light against a devouring darkness. A tiny comfort on the wing, a fleeting moment of transcendence…
Tuesday afternoon I came home and checked the wreath.
I don’t know what I expected. I don’t even know if this is wise or healthy (when is a thing officially an obsession?).
It didn’t look any different. I thought I saw one shred of green grass hung in the grapevine where the nest used to be…probably a remnant.
I tried Merlin Bird Sound ID again. —Crows! You are SO. LOUD. Chickadee, cardinal, dark-eyed junco…blue-gray gnatcatcher? Chipping sparrow, osprey. —Osprey! Several of them, impossibly high overhead, calling in their wild, echoing sea-song bursts.
But even in my awe…no finches.
As I turned to leave the driveway a bird sailed right past my head to land in the crape myrtle.
I couldn’t believe it: Papa Finch! Speckled brown, gorgeous red head…I’d know him anywhere.
Then another swoop over the fence to the backyard, not so far from where I laid the babies to rest…is that Mama Finch? Am I making this up? The power of suggestion, or wishful thinking? Writer’s imagination?
I came back into the house to watch a while through the beveled glass of the front door… clandestine operations…
It wasn’t long before he appeared on the garage roof top.
With something trailing from his beak.
‘THEY ARE REBUILDING!” I cried aloud to no one, before I remembered to be clandestine.
Sure enough, Mama Finch soon joined him… appears they have a personal stash of building materials on top of my garage, for they took turns swooping to the front door.
Making a new nest, in a big hurry.
If you have time, watch the short video; it is the first footage I’ve ever obtained of the house finch parents. I’ve never even been able to get a photo. But here’s Papa holding wisps of nesting material while Mama sets hers in place; she returns, and he goes to add his layer.
In the exact same spot as the nest I removed the day before, with the lost babies.
This is what they accomplished in one afternoon:
Look at those soft white pieces procured by Papa.
They’re not done, of course, but are working feverishly in tandem; I suspect Mama is ready to lay more eggs…
If I know my finches, they’ll start hatching right around Easter.
And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new —Revelation 21:5.
For the first time, I rejoice at tearing the old nest down. I marvel at the fortitude of these little birds, prevailing today over yesterday’s loss, pressing on with urgency. They have a contribution to make to the world. This is not the first time, nor surely the last, that I am awed by the resilience and regenerative power of nature. It’s all doing exactly what it is meant to do…with hope and healing for the taking.
Courage, dear hearts.
with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge
Under the eaves a porch on the porch a chosen door
a porch sanctuary a chosen door from the other side, I hear
sanctuary: father finch feeding nesting mother from the other side, I hear a song of love
father finch feeding nesting mother on the porch a song of love under the eaves
Short clip of my house finches, which return every spring to nest in my door wreath (the finches don’t know that I purposely put out the twiggy grapevine wreaths they like best). Crank the volume to hear their beautiful voices. You might even catch a glimpse of wings as the father flies off to fetch more food for the mother. He will feed her until their little blue eggs hatch and then they’ll both feed their babies. In listening, it’s easy to understand how “charm” became the collective noun for finches and why they are said to symbolize joy.
“Adaptable, colorful, and cheery-voiced, House Finches are common from coast to coast today, familiar visitors to backyard feeders. Native to the Southwest, they are recent arrivals in the East. New York pet shop owners, who had been selling the finches illegally, released their birds in 1940 to escape prosecution; the finches survived, and began to colonize the New York suburbs. By 50 years later they had advanced halfway across the continent, meeting their western kin on the Great Plains.”
In Roman times, priests called augurs studied the activities of birds to divine the will of the gods. This practice of reading signs and omens was called taking auspices.
Likewise, many ancient legends depict the language of birds as perfect and divine; predating human speech, it was communicated by deities, understood by prophets and angels. Some say bird language was the original language n the Garden of Eden, spoken by Adam, Eve, and God.
I cannot speak to these mystical beliefs. But I agree there’s something of the sacred in birds.
I assumed I’d developed this affinity later in life. Birdwatching as an older person’s pastime. My mother-in-law loved birds. So did my grandmother. What is the correlation between aging and deriving such pleasure from birds? An acknowledgement that life in this world grows short, and the beautiful should be savored? Or something deeper? Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated, writes Terry Tempest Williams.
I’d forgotten that my love of birds began early in life. It all started with parakeets named Angel and Lucifer (how’s that for spiritual connections?). Angel was blue and white, sky-and-clouds. Lucifer was yellow and green. They were pets of my parents’ friends and after my first mesmerizing encounter, I begged for a parakeet. I got one for my sixth birthday. Solid yellow (although I’d wanted one like Angel). The pet shop folks boxed my bird in a carton decorated like a circus train, with little holes in the sides. Riding home in the car, I peered in to see a red-purple eye looking back at me…
Tweety lived until I was twelve.
I could never have a caged bird now.
They are meant to be free.
Living in a rural area offers daily doses of bird-awe, from the blue herons standing like statues in stillwater ponds to the snowy-winged hawks perched high on power lines…last week on my way to work, I felt lighter than I have in a while. It’s been an exceptionally trying year at school. It helps that there’s actually more daylight now that spring is on the way (I should have my vitamin D checked, perhaps). On this particular day last week, I sensed that good things are coming. I even said it to myself, so strong was the sense: Good things are coming. A little farther on, I happened to notice a large brown clump up in a bare tree by the road. A nest of leaves, maybe? Work of squirrels? But as I drew near, I saw a white head…a curved beak..
For the rest of that day I felt I had wings myself.
And then there is the return of the house finches, which, truth be told, never actually leave. One or two little birds have been sleeping in my door wreath this winter. They startled me a few times at night, flying out of the wreath when I went to the porch. I suspect finches although I couldn’t get a good look in the dark. If you’ve read my blog a while, you know the finches build nests in my door wreath each spring. In fact, I left the old grapevine wreath out for this very purpose.
A couple of weeks ago, I heard the telltale chatter on the porch. Finches discussing the wreath. Probably planning the nest. It was a loud, spirited conversation, hard to tell if the pair was in agreement or not…
I kept checking the wreath, but all I saw was the indented place where a bird or two had been sleeping.
No nest. It was still February, after all.
This past Saturday, the finches were the loudest yet, out there on the porch. My son and granddaughter, age sixteen months, were visiting.
“Is that your finches, Mom?” he asked.
“Yes. They’re talking about making a nest,” I explained.
We listened for a while to the happy trills.
The next morning I went out to check… surely a nest was started, with all that cheerful bird language?
I saw nothing.
Until…I don’t know what made me get the stool and check the far side of the wreath…
This is what the finches were up to:
A perfect nest, so perfectly disguised that even I, who was watching for it, didn’t find it until four eggs had already been laid.
I know this happens every spring across the Earth, but to me, it is a miracle. The eggs, incubating life, laid on a bed so carefully and lovingly lined with soft hair…it is soul-piercingly precious.
As is the father finch’s glorious, glorious song from the rooftop, morning and evening, his voice rolling down and echoing across the countryside. His is the predominant voice of all the birds around, and there are many…I will write of them later.
For the father finch’s song of deep joy is my own right now…celebrating family, life, light.
Good things are here.
with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March.
I suspect there will be lots of birds in my posts… spirit-lifters that they are.