Sunday, June 2, 2013

St. Francis of the John Deere



As I set my ample behind into the plastic wicker chair atop the front door stoop, she pulled up close, hovered and yelled at me. It was obvious she wanted my attention, but for just what I wasn't sure. I have a few words in Avian memorized; the wrens have taught me the phrases for "get the hell away from my nest" and "I'm so happy, I could just shit... like every few seconds", and the goldfinch have made very clear the sound of "the feeder's empty fat boy get your lazy butt to the garage and get us some vittles." But whatever momma barn swallow shouted at me, while certainly passionate, was indecipherable.

I’d guessed that she was miffed that I'd let the house finches steal her self-built mud pot she'd attached to the eave only a few yards over my head. So I said firmly, "Hey, you guys have to work out this who's nest is who's thing without me; I just provide the building for you to stick mudballs on, I don't lease the space for owl's sake!"

But she wasn't listening to that line, she flew left, then right...then buzzed my head; though my fist is twice the size and weight of her entire existence she was insistent that I needed to pay better attention and as Linda would say, "get with the program."

I had a hunch what she meant, and as I had the time, I acted on it, walking to the shed behind what was then my house and starting up my baby tractor.

When I first browsed the property I lived on between ’95 and 2009 the swallows came to see me, following my every step, swooping in for a better look at the intruder without a moment's fear. Each time I visited before we built the house they would come entertain me for an hour while I planted trees or just sat on the hill I called the "watch", and pondered my future. The year after the house was finished, the first swallow nest was dabbed into place over my bedroom window and I let them have all the space they needed as they had provided me with so much mindless stress relief I owed them in kind; but I stopped short when they tried to build a nest on the frame of my front door. I told them no but they gave me that "no habla englais" crap, so for days we played the "you build it, I'll tear it down" game until they were so pissed at me I couldn't walk to the outbuilding cum writing studio I named “the shack” without my being verbally threatened or even physically attacked.

Of course, birds have a short memory for that kind of stuff, hence the name "bird brain"; so by the end of this particular week they'd moved on to a different location just out of my reach, and in frustration I let them have it without making a fuss. This year the finches got to it first, filling the pot with feathers and straw and laying eggs the moment they could create them (see "bird sex" in a previous post). The swallows were not happy and expressed to me their displeasure more than once that summer. I tried to explain “I'm not the bird sheriff in these parts”, but they just poked at me in response, or swooped overhead and tried to crap on my shirt. And so it goes, birds are just like people it seems.

It was interesting, the cohabitation with “my” birds; some became quite accustomed to me and while they were not fearless in my presence, they were shall we say “overly comfortable”. But no symbiosis was more telling than when I’d mow, as it eventually became obvious the swallow that began this story had been goading me to begin.

It was not every time I'd pulled out any mower, but more often than not, the moment I’d start an engine the swallows would take flight and begin to circle my position, as if hunting dogs who've heard the master pump his shotgun. And as soon as I hit the PTO and lowered the blades, in they’d come, swooping and twisting and snatching a huge meal from the insect buffet I’d kick up. It was really fun the year we had a locust infestation. The birds circled as the hoppers would leap eight feet straight up as I came near, and then the swallows came so close I could literally watch them open their beaks, snatch the bugs out of the air and fly off, grinning, if I'm not mistaken.

This day of avian scolding was no different; as six blue back, orange bellied v-tailed aerobatics machines, trailing behind me as I found patch after patch of hovering mosquitos and gnats, and then diving into me for the feast, looking like a Shriner motorcycle routine from a Thanksgiving Day parade. For over an hour I fed them, and not once did momma swallow yell at me during that time; I can only guess I've now learned Avian for "get your ass off the chair and mow, we're hungry".

It's hard to take the world and its misery seriously while watching animals do their thing. I get the concept that it's feeding and not playing, it's instinct and not preplanned communal pleasure activity. I understand birds don't smile or have fun or talk to people...at least to most people...

But dammit, I swear I’ve heard them laughing and calling out plays to each other as they’d fly; or maybe it was just the sound I made as I imagined myself one of them instead of one of the intolerable beasts of planet Earth. If reincarnation exists I'm putting in a bid for barn swallow. With my luck I'll be a grasshopper in the path of a guy on a lawn tractor with a flock of birds feeding behind him...but hey, it never hurts to ask.

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