Brown Thrashers, Black Snakes and Chickadees

The brown thrasher picked up a small stick, she turned it this way and that dropped it on the ground and picked it up again. I watched her test it over and over, running her beak back and forth from one end to the other, pressing the tip against the ground judging its pliability. Finally, she discarded it altogether and picked another. It too was subjected to the same rigorous standards used to gauge its usefulness. Her examination was precise;  instinctively she knew what was required, and so intent was she on this important task, seemed unaware I was only several yards from where she was working. When she finally settled on which stick would best suit her purposes she flew into a small thicket and strategically placed the chosen twig amongst some others. She poked and pushed and pulled as the twig was woven into the small shallow bowl; it was just the framework, the beginning of her nest. Only about four feet off the ground, it appeared vulnerable to predators and I found it odd that she continued to work while I stood so close. No attempt was made to conceal the nest site, drive me away or distract me. She may have been a first year mother with little experience so I thought it best to leave her to the work at hand and check on her progress tomorrow.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Similar in size to the robin with a longer tail that often angles upward like a wren, they have a bright rufous color on their upper parts and a buff-white on their lower parts with prominent black streaking and two white wing bars. They can be rather stern looking with a slightly curved bill and intense yellow eyes. The brown thrasher is a prolific and accomplished vocalist and may sing over eleven hundred different song types including imitations of other birds. They are a favorite bird of my wife, not just because of their beauty and musical repertoire, but their bold personalities make them fun to watch. A rare presence around our property, because we live deep in the woods. They prefer spaces that border a woodlot and fields that have been abandoned where thick bushes like hawthorns grow. Much of their time is spent skulking in the undergrowth, rummaging under leaf litter and grasses swishing their beaks back and forth throwing debris off to the sides in search of insects, mainly beetles and other arthropods, seeds and fruit.

Between 1966 and 2015 populations of brown thrasher’s have declined by 41% according to the “North American Breeding Bird Survey.” Like all birds, they suffer from habitat loss, die from exposure to pesticides as well as natural predators like sharp-shinned hawks. In the United States alone it is estimated that the domestic house cat kills from 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion birds a year. Cell towers and skyscrapers kill millions more as birds that migrate often fly at night and whole flocks are killed when they collide with these structures that are unnaturally tall, and of course, cars kill many millions more. With statistics like these one has to wonder how there are any birds left at all.  At almost sixty years old, I hear how quiet the forests and meadows have become since I was a boy. It happens so slowly, over many decades; few hardly notice.

When I arrived back home my wife and daughter were defending a chickadees nest that had been built-in a birdhouse positioned high off the ground on our back deck. A four-foot black snake had found his way up the stairs and was scoping out any meal opportunities that were present. Black snakes are fantastic climbers and in our area spend most of their time in the forest canopy where bird and squirrel nests are easy pickings. Last summer I watched as a six-foot black snake devoured a nest full of half-grown blue jays. The parents, as well as other adult jays, came streaking in from all directions to help defend the nest, but it was no use. Two of the fledglings managed to escape by jumping from the nest that was almost thirty feet up in a pine tree. The other three were swallowed whole as the jay community watched in horror. Their dive bombing, screams, and well-placed pecking did little to slow the inevitable.

I pushed this new opportunist off the deck with my foot and it landed with a thud on the soft forest floor. The chickadee’s nest survived another day. Like house cats, black snakes are great for helping to keep the rodent population under control. Unfortunately, like house cats, they also kill birds and can’t distinguish between a rare breed and ones that are plentiful.

 They are both indiscriminate killers. While the snake may only kill and eat once or twice a month, a cat is a constant hunter and kills whenever it can, regardless of hunger. In fact, a well-fed cat is a more efficient hunter.

Black snakes are oviparous, meaning they lay eggs. The “gravid” female will lay between 6 and 30 smooth leathery eggs in mid to late July. Females only reproduce about every three years in the colder parts of their range, but possibly every year in the warmer regions. The eggs are laid under logs or in hollow trees and the young ( about 12 inches at hatching) typically stay in the area of the nest for the first couple of years even hibernating together at the nest site. The snakes are prey as well and have many predators, starting with the burying beetle which lays its eggs in the snake’s eggs and the beetle larvae parasitize the developing embryos by feeding on them.

Over next few days, I checked on the thrasher’s progress. The nest was only a little more developed, it was as though she had lost interest. After a week it was obvious she had abandoned the sight or was killed by a predator. I never saw her again after that first day and I never saw a mate. Perhaps her mate was killed and that’s why the nest was abandoned.

Even an astute observer can only speculate on the many passionate struggles that unfold in nature just beyond the windows of our comfortable, safe homes. I became anxious about the chickadee’s nest and pulled open the front of the nest box. A beautiful, articulately crafted nest crowded the interior. It was made from moss, lichen, and small delicate grasses. I spread apart an unbelievably soft layer of feather down covering six tiny white and brown mottled eggs and gently ran my fingers across their surface; they felt like warm, but delicate jellybeans. Knowing there was a life force growing inside each one suddenly gave me pause and I knew I had taken my curiosity too far. Six tiny magic jewels, enchanting and mysterious. Only the incubators understood their true value. I withdrew my hand and closed the box.

I knew a man once who called chickadees, “Elves of the forest.” I think that’s an accurate description. They are bold and sassy little birds that tame easily and will feed from your hand. I had taken no more than three steps from the nest box and a parent dove from a tree branch scolding me for my transgression and entered the box in a huff without even a sideways glance.

It’s late May and the forest is thriving and full of activity. It seems as though there is movement everywhere you look. What you can’t see can often be heard. The chorus starts before first light, wrens, cardinals, wood thrush, eastern phoebe and wood peewees, Jays, ravens, warblers and others, calling out territory. Though some mornings as we lay in bed with windows open it seems they are singing for pure joy and greet the new day with an enthusiasm that comes from knowing their creator personally. Box turtles, salamanders painted with fantastic colors, newts, and insects that defy identification, prowl the forest floor. Weasels, mink, raccoons, opossums, deer, fox, squirrels, rabbits, and bear play their roles without complaint, and butterflies, hummingbirds, bees and other pollinators work tirelessly.  The resident pair of Barred owls calls back and forth across the ravine at dusk and all through the night one very lonely spring peeper calls and calls waiting for a reply. He may have hitched a ride in one of our kayaks while we were out exploring the river and found himself trapped here in the woods. There are no others.

By mid-June, things will have calmed down somewhat. The forest breathes a soothing sigh of relief; the pulse that summer brings feels slower. Parent birds are quiet when the young have left the nest. There is no reason to draw attention to their position. I’ll tend our garden and delight in the cool earth on my bare feet, and feel the weight of a thousand eyes; aware that the activity that surrounds us is beyond comprehension. Under the soil, in the trees, in the air, there is life, vibrant, mysterious, passionate. You can taste it, but you don’t know what your tasting, you feel it, but don’t understand why your nape hairs rise. You hear whispers, and shadows slip by the corners of your eye. It is the spirit of the forest and all of its inhabitants from the beginning of time.

By Robert LaCombe, essaysinnature.com