The Thing With Feathers

(11.12.17) The Thing With Feathers

Winter is almost here. We haven’t had a truly hard freeze yet, and there are still a few flowers blooming in the pollinator garden, but the maples have dropped their leaves, and the oaks won’t be far behind now. The Yankee robins have returned from their nesting grounds up north to join the local robins in big, noisy flocks that rival the starlings for boisterous debate. The stars shine more precisely in the cold sky.

The nights are cold, but the days are mostly sunny and almost mild, like a day in early springtime. And every morning now, the bluebirds come back to the nest box where they raised four babies last summer. They pop their heads in and out through the little round doorway, and sometimes the female climbs all the way inside, while the male sits on the roof to keep watch. If she stays there too long, he clambers down, too, to hang in the doorway. I don’t know if he’s worried for her safety or merely curious about what’s taking so long in there.

I’m surprised to see them. Earlier this fall, a builder bought the house across the street from us and tore it down. In its place he is putting up a huge new house, taller than any other in the neighborhood, and there is constant hammering and sawing and giant trucks coming and going, grinding their gears and beeping, and the messy ruckus is just steps away from the bluebird box. Radios broadcast Spanish-language music all day long, and the carpenters sing at the tops of their voices as they fling heavy two-by-six boards straight up to each other, floor by floor by floor.

The bluebirds are unperturbed. Every afternoon they come to eat the mealworms they know I will put out for them toward evening, and every morning they return with the parade of construction vehicles to explore the nestbox they know so well already. They look for all the world as though they, too, are planning for the future, setting things in order for a new family to arrive once the cold winter is past.

What they are actually doing is reasserting ownership of the box so it will be theirs to use during the coldest nights of winter. Instead of roosting in the trees on terrible nights, whole families of bluebirds will gather in a nestbox or treehole to conserve body heat and take shelter from the elements.

I stand at my window and watch them, and then I look past them to the cheerful competence of the human builders clinging to the scaffolding of the house taking shape under their hands. I know the bluebirds are a long way from preparing to build a nest, but standing before the sun-filled window of my own warm house, I can’t help thinking of what the springtime will bring. These days I am often far from feeling any confidence in the future, but when I look at the busy tableau before me, something flutters inside anyway—something that feels just a little bit like hope.