The best ones don’t always start with the precision of Cupid’s arrow. Some take time. And sometimes you can fall in love without even knowing someone’s name. In this case, I had a name. But I wasn’t sure who to attach it to.
Marge and Studley Windowson were more of a concept at first. True, I did have a pair of authentic chickadees and a house to put them in. But I didn’t know if it was the same pair every spring. I didn’t know which one was Marge and which one was Studley. I didn’t even know how they knew. I think they just did what felt natural and then waited to see who the egg dropped out of. Strictly speaking, this is not the case. I read up: the female scouts the nest site and puts the mattress together while the male brings around snacks. So I knew who was who while Marge was hammering away in the nest box, but then as soon as they were both on a branch I was all befuddled again.
Fortunes change. Some years they blasted in with 5,000 bugs a day and baby birds came out. Some years they took off and left their eggs unloved. One year they were aced out by nuthatches. It’s always something.
But then last year one of them showed up with a bum foot, and it turned out to be Studley. Brave Studley curled his swollen toes up in his belly feathers and devoted his days to supporting Marge any way he could think of. He parked on a nearby twig with his head swiveling for danger. He chased away smaller birds and hollered at the rest. When he came back this spring, with his missus, and minus two toes, I about lost my mind with joy. I wanted to take up trumpet. The cups are still rattling in the cupboards.
The trouble is, there’s always trouble. It’s harder to go from an egg to a journeyman bird than you might think. There are wasps. Mites. Other birds can’t be trusted. Several of my neighbors are devoted to seeing that their cats can express their wild nature, and my yard is where they like to do it. And the tree that used to shade the Windowson residence has only a cowlick of leaves remaining. If the eggs don’t get poached by a critter they could get poached, period. I learned how to reconstruct the nest box to keep it cool, but too late to avoid disturbing sweet Marge. Fortunately, it hasn’t gotten hot yet.
But once the bug and grub train gets rolling, it’ll be Grand Central around here. By the time the nestlings are about ready to fly away, Marge and Studley will be hauling in groceries about once a minute, dawn to dusk. You’ll never see a stronger work ethic. Last year their brood failed. I wanted dearly to help.
“Mealworms,” I told Dave, who reminds me of Studley.
We took off for the mealworm store.
What I wanted to do, I explained to the mealworm store lady, was crack the window open and dispense mealworms from my windowsill. I’m right there a couple feet away from the bird house. Maybe they’d even take them from my hand, I said, all fizzy with the possibility. I once spent a half hour still as a statue with sunflower seeds in my hand and snagged two indelible seconds with a pine siskin. And of course I’ve had gray jays land on me. If you wear a suit made out of cereal, a gang of gray jays will strip you naked in nothing flat.
The mealworm store lady frowned. You don’t want to attract scrub jays, she said. If you have a suet feeder on the other side of your house, you could hang a mealworm feeder underneath it and your chickadees will find it right away.
That felt less personal. But the image of a scrub jay slicing through the air with a fuzzy new nuthatch reopened a gash in my memory. I did not want to attract jays.
But I did buy the mealworms.
To be continued. This post and the next are dedicated to Julie Zickefoose and her wide-open heart.