|Are you looking at me, phoebe?|
I’d never seen a bird’s nest and all the accompanying activity up close before, and I became both entranced by the process of nesting and hatching and fledging, and protective of the nest and its contents. Now we have another nest on the back porch, and I’ve taken to peering through the kitchen windows again, watching another nest story unfold. This time it’s a phoebe who has built her nest, atop the back porchlight, a couple feet above where the robin settled in 11 years ago.
While the location is the same, the surrounding environment is quite different now than it was in the robin’s day. The back porch is not the quiet sanctuary it once was, and the light on which mother phoebe has built her nest is smackdab next to the back door.
Kids go careening through that door regularly, on their way to the garage to collect bikes and other playthings. They ride said bikes around the driveway, quite close to the nest. They kick soccer balls and hit tennis balls back and forth nearby. They climb the trees along that edge of the driveway, where the phoebe sometimes, in quiet moments, perches while seeking out bugs to catch.
I can only figure that the phoebe decided on her nesting spot while we were away for a few days back at the end of April. It would have been quiet here then, with no dog and no humans. I imagine the small porch, tucked between house and garage, seemed like a nice place: sheltered from the weather, with a good view of the rest of the yard and plenty of bugs to catch for dinner.
Although we’ve faced the small inconvenience of altering our movements – keeping the door closed and instead accessing the garage through the muddled mudroom, leaving the light off, and trying not to walk too close or too quickly past the nesting area – I’m glad the phoebe picked this spot. It’s rare to have such a close-up and constant view of nature – even if it’s a common songbird and not some more exotic wild species we get to observe.
I watched the nest come together in phases, first the mud foundation, then the moss, carried by beak and packed firmly into the mud. For days the nest was empty, a small mud-and-moss cup waiting for eggs. Then one morning, when I’d given up hope, I glanced out the window to find the phoebe sitting there.
After she left, I tiptoed out and held my phone camera above the nest for a photo – it’s too high for me to see into, so I had to slide the phone along the ceiling to gain a peek inside. Low and behold, two eggs. Within a few days there was a clutch of five, and mother phoebe started spending time sitting there, keeping one wary eye on the lookout.
The eggs – all five of them – hatched a couple weeks ago. I watched as the phoebe – and, now, her mate – carried all sorts of bugs to the chicks, watched hungry beaks gape open and be filled with other, smaller winged things.
The babies – at first ugly and naked – have grown feathers, and their eyes opened this week. Now, when I peer out the window, they seem often to be jostling for space in the nest they’ve outgrown. Now and then, one chick or another will open its wings and stretch. They are getting ready to leave the nest.
I suppose there is some metaphor here, some correlation to raising human children who grow and stretch and find their own proverbial wings. But I’ve just been enjoying the phoebe show without looking for deeper meaning.
I’ve learned a good deal by watching the phoebes through the window these last weeks. Many of the details you can read in bird books or online – that phoebes almost always build nests of mud and moss and often refurbish and reuse those nests, that the female does nearly all the work from nest-building to feeding, that they hunt bugs from various perches and often catch them in the air. But seeing it first-hand allows a different level of learning.
Sometimes when I look out the window, mother phoebe peers back at me, head cocked quizzically, one black beady eye turned my way. Perhaps she is just looking for bugs to catch from her perch there on the overturned patio chair. But I like to think there’s some level of avian trust in that gaze, that amid all the noise and activity of my brood the phoebe knows we’re looking out for her little family as they prepare to fly away from the nest.
Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the June 23, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.