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Wednesday, June 7, 2006

One of my studies of the phoebe chick, nine days old. Here, they end.

Heartbreak. Liam came running this morning to tell me that there was a big black rat snake by the pond. We went down and watched it drink. Even as I was admiring its beauty, I got a sick feeling in my stomach. I raced to set up the ladder and check the phoebe nest I'd been watching, just a few yards from where this elegant creature was lazing on a rock. Turns out, the snake needed to wash down its meal of four about-to-fledge phoebes from the nest atop our TV relay box under the deck. Despite my fugly, painstakingly built glass-panel baffle, despite my fierce devotion to protecting the nest, I had inadvertantly put one of the shower doors wrong-side-out, and there was a little metal handle halfway up its length, and that was all the big snake needed to give it a hitch the rest of the way up. I stared at the baffle, wondering how I could have been so stupid, how I could have overlooked that fatal flaw. Last year, I must have put it up correctly, because the first phoebe nest fledged successfully.
These weren't just any phoebes; they were the subjects of a number of paintings for my next book. I feel the loss keenly, personally and professionally. They were just getting their feathers, ten days old. I'd watched and painted them since they hatched. Last year, I was traveling while the first brood was in the nest. When I finally got home, and the second brood hatched, the chicks only lived for a day before an infestation of mites killed them. And again, it seems that I won't get to see a brood through to fledging. Unless...
Not one to stand around lamenting, I got a small piece of wood, some long nails, a hammer, and my ladder. First, I removed the used phoebe nest, and put rocks atop the relay box so nobody could nest there again. It's too hard to safeguard, and I'm not even sure that the metal handle on the shower door was at fault. There are dozens of ways a snake could get to that nest. Then, I put up a shelf where the snake would have to grow wings to reach it--about ten feet away, with no downspout beneath it.
Next, I put the old phoebe nest in the oven to kill any mites or other parasites that are doubtless lurking within it. 250 degrees for an hour should do it. The kitchen filled with the scent of baking bird nest. Chet was intrigued, as he is with most of my antics. With a spray bottle, I dampened the mud in the well-cooked nest and stuck it securely to the new, safe shelf.
Photo by Phoebe Thompson. I seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time on ladders of late.

As I was putting up the shelf, the male phoebe sang a couple of bars from just down the hill. Imagine, singing on the day your children were eaten. Birds just get on with it. He's moving on, and so am I. Now I just have to wait, and hope that the phoebes decide to take one more chance on raising a family on Indigo Hill.
Rats. Rats. Rats.


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