I had a deal with the mother robin who has made a nest outside our kitchen window for the last four years. That deal included things like, “I’ll stop judging your parenting if you stop judging mine,” and, “Mind your own business; I’ve got three birds — I mean, kids — in here, OK? And they don’t eat worms.”
It also included my rescuing baby birds from the jaws of Sparky, our 2-year-old Brittany Spaniel, who loves to hunt. I did this once, famously, while former MLB pinch-hitter Matt Stairs was visiting for Dinner with the Smileys.
While Stairs and the children watched an MLB bloopers DVD, I had a life-or-death situation on my hands in the backyard. No one in the living room ever knew anything was amiss.
My agreement with the mother bird, however, never included anything about her brood being allowed inside our house. (Note: I don’t go in her nest, either.) And that’s why things got a little tense between us last week.
The robin, by the way, must be a fertile little thing, because she has several clutches in one summer. From June to late-August she slaves over different sets of eggs. She always uses the same nest, in the same location, and I have a front-row seat from my kitchen table.
Over and over again, at least three times a summer, I grieve as her fuzzy, grey-headed babies leave. (Oh, how she must hate me when she looks in the window and sees mine still there!)
Her last nest is usually in August. This year, though, it seemed like it might be a dud. I never heard the familiar chirps of the babies, nor did I see their spiky hair sticking up over the edges of the nest. I didn’t even see the mother going maniacally back and forth with worms hanging from her mouth.
Last week, I found out why: the mother robin had herself an only child.
One lonely little bird poked his head from the nest last week, and then he stood up and took a look around. This is always my cue that the birds, or bird, will soon fledge. Usually, I lock Sparky inside the house so he won’t nab the baby before it’s had a chance.
But last week, my mother-in-law, also named Robin, oddly enough, was visiting from Seattle, and I forgot to give her the lowdown on my relationship with the birds. I told her that a baby was going to fly soon, but I forgot to mention that we should leave Sparky inside. Oops.
All of the sudden, while I was upstairs brushing my hair, I heard a horrible fuss outside. The mother bird was squawking and swooping between the trees. Sparky’s dog tags jingled, and his nails gripped the wooden deck.
I knew he had gotten a bird.
Before I could even put down my brush, I heard Robin — the person, not the bird — screaming from downstairs, “Sparky got a bird and brought it inside the house! There’s a bird inside the house!”
I ran down the stairs and found Sparky standing over a teeny, shivering bird on our living room floor. He couldn’t have been prouder. With an open-mouth grin and a tail that moved his entire backside, he seemed to be saying, “Look, I got your dinner!”
I knew the bird wasn’t hurt because Sparky holds them with a characteristically “soft mouth.” He never intends to eat them. They are “gifts” for me, his mom, if you will. But I had seen the mess these birds make on my back porch, and it was just a matter of time before this one pooped on the carpet.
My mother-in-law was still screaming. She wanted Ford, 12, to catch the bird in a sheet and take him outside. Meanwhile, Ford and his younger brothers had locked themselves in my bedroom. It was just me, the baby bird, one happy dog, and a frantic Robin (the person, not the bird).
I got a towel, scooped up the bird and walked to the back porch. Sparky’s tail stopped wagging as he followed. “Um, you aren’t going to just let that one go, are you?” he seemed to be saying.
I put the baby bird in the grass and shooed Sparky back into the house. Then I stood on the deck and shook my finger at the mother.
“Did you have to let it fly while my door was open?” I asked her. “Your timing is lousy, you know. You nearly gave my mother-in-law a heart attack. And the children! Next time, wait until I’m ready, OK?”
The mother swiveled her head in that pretentious, unblinking way birds do.
I sighed and went back inside.
When I looked out the door later, the mother and the baby were gone. Already, I couldn’t wait to see her again next year.