Thursday, May 30, 2013

Fortitude, Bird Style

There's been a sweet married birdie couple living in my backyard for a while. Mr. and Mrs. California Towhee, ground-hopping birds who have a nest in a tree on the side of my yard. They've been there a while, and they often come hopping right up to the sliding glass door to peek in and see what we're up to. (My cat does not like this and has bruised his forehead lunging into the glass like an idiot.)

A sweet little brown California towhee. He has a high chip-chip sound.

They've also raised a nest of little baby towhees, and although I suspected they had babies nearby -- the grabbing of an earwig and then flying off with it was a sure sign -- I didn't know where they were.

Last week, I heard a bout of mad cheeping, baby-style cheeping, and I got to the window just in time to see two large shapes falling from the tree, and a marauding scrub jay fluttering in the branches, and mama and papa towhee screaming and flapping at him. Twice they chased him off; twice he returned. Finally, from across the yard streamed a third towhee, and he aided his friends in chasing off the scrub jay. I ran out and did my best to chase off the jay too but I thought my presence stressed the towhees so I went back inside. (Also I did not want my head pecked.) The scrub jay, if you haven't guessed, had pushed the two babies out of the nest in an attempt to have a snack. I'm not a birder, so this was all high drama for me.

The babies sought cover under leaves, and they had feathers although they couldn't fly. I let them all be, not knowing what would happen to the babies.

A pretty, but very evil, scrub jay.


Four days later, we arrived home from Memorial Day weekend up at my mom's house, and again I heard a mad bout of cheeping. In a different corner of my yard, probably the same evil scrub jay was hopping around and he flushed out a towhee baby. The parents were again beside themselves. But this time, the jay managed to push the baby into the creek that runs through our backyard (really a glorified storm drain). I ran out, screaming, and the jay flew off. I got a shovel to get the baby out, but it was too late. Mr. Sierra put him on the grass so the parents would see him.

The awful jay came back and to my horror at the baby. The mama and papa towhee had to stand nearby and watch, and their soft chipping as they watched broke my heart.

It's a good thing I'm not a towhee.

I was pretty upset, but Mr. Sierra reminded me that this is nature. The towhee parents saw the dead baby before the jay returned to feast, and there was nothing they could do. They displayed an admirable amount of love and sorrow and protective instinct, but in the end, they understand that as birds, you've got to move on. Wikipedia tells me that towhees can lay eggs and they'll hatch pretty quickly; babies leave the nest in 8 days or so. That seems like a pretty quick turnaround and I don't know how often they lay eggs, but maybe they'll move on and lay more. They appear to live in my tree year-round.

After watching this awful drama, I had to think what it must be like as a bird to watch your baby survive being kicked out of the nest only to be drowned and then eaten by a mean scrub jay. Do they move on? Can they? Certainly humans would have a horrid time doing so, but do birds?

I don't know, but my guess is that Mr. Sierra was right. They have to move on and lay more eggs if you want anything in the world.

Naturally, I'm going to compare this kind of fortitude to how it is to write a book and see it through to publishing, either traditional or self. This is not to belittle the poor birds or to suggest that losing a baby to a nasty scrub jay is at all the same, but certainly if you want to make it, fortitude is in order. You get rejected, you've just got to go on. You get a nasty review, you've just got to go on. You've just got to keep doing what's important. And pray that the scrub jay gets his.



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